"I'm mad nervous," J. Cole says to a packed room at Roc the Mic Studios, in Manhatta's Chelsea neighborhood. “This is crazy.” His anxiety is understandable. It’s mid-August, and the 26-year-old is about to press play on his debut album, Cole World: The Sideline Story, for a full room of critics for the first time. The album itself has been more than two years in the making, but the stories it tells go back much further.

An Army brat, Jermaine Cole was born in Germany but soon moved with his family to Fayetteville, North Carolina, a moderately sized city best known for its military base, Fort Bragg. Born to a White mother and Black father, Cole was raised by his mother after his parents split when he was young.

After starting to rap in high school, Cole set his eyes on New York City, hoping to land a recording contract. An academic scholarship to St. John’s University brought him to the Big Apple, and he became the first artist signed to Jay-Z’s emerging Roc Nation label, in February 2009. Cole released the critically acclaimed mixtape The Warm Up in June of that year and was featured on Jay’s Blueprint 3 that September. Last year, another mixtape, Friday Night Lights, hit the Net, quickly becoming a worldwide trending topic on Twitter and earning similar praise as The Warm Up did.

Now, after much delay and plenty of hype, J. Cole is ready to release his official debut. An hour or so before the listening session, he sat down for a conversation with XXL.—Adam Fleischer

XXL: What do you want people to get from your debut album?

J. Cole: I want them to see the growth. You’ll see that you get flashes of the mixtapes—The Warm Up, Friday Night Lights. But then you also got spots where you’re like, “Oh, my God. What the fuck is this?” I didn’t plan on being a mixtape artist my entire life. Of course, I want them to soak up the stories and the songs, but if there’s one thing I want them to get from it, it’s that, “Yo, this nigga’s not fuckin’ around. He’s not settling for that status.”

How are you able to express that same mentality that you had on the earlier mixtapes, that same hunger that was there, now that you’ve had success?

As much as it might look like, to someone else, that I’m successful, I never feel like I’m anywhere. The further I go, I still feel equally further from my eventual goal. Because as I grow, I get more goals. I’m never content.

It seems like a lot of young artists these days—and maybe it’s because mixtapes are like albums—their debut albums are more about having made it than trying to make it.

I had to fight not making my first album sound like that. Because I’m in two different places. I’m hanging around these types of people sometimes, and I’m seeing these types of things, and I had to make it a point to not talk about that too much. It’s weird. I want to stay true to these topics on the first album and tell that story, without telling too much of, “I’m making money now.” I could have made that album. Exaggerated all that shit.

How much money I’m getting and all the places I go. But it’s the first album. I still feel like this is an important story to tell for my career.