A jack of all trades but a master of all, Dreamville founder and rap icon J. Cole has had quite the stint in rap music. Whether it’s via controversy, personal rap debates or just his sick rhymes, Cole has risen to the top, becoming the introspective figurehead that we have learned to love today. Throughout his mainstream career – which turns 10 this year – and his many years underground before it, the North Carolina rapper has given us endless tracks to treasure, including his recent collection on his sixth album ‘The Off-Season’, which he’s hinted might precede his retirement. As we look back on his career, here are his 10 best tracks, with which he let his musical ear reign supreme.
‘P r i d e. i s. t h e. d e v i l’ (2021)
‘The Off-Season’ has some bops, including this Lil Baby-assisted deep-dive into Cole’s own ego. Surrounding the 36-year-old is talk as to whether he’s a top MC – and there’s no question that he is – however, with rap moving away from the technical lyrics he used to love, in recent years he’s not been as impactful as he once was. As he takes backseat and allows Baby to take over, it’s nice to hear J. Cole still got it too. Taking his amazing self-reflective skills up a notch with imaginative delivery, ‘p r i d e. i s. t h e. d e v i l.’ is a great contender for this list.
Best Line: “Got uncles and some aunties that’s too proud to give apologies / Slowly realizing what the root of all my problems be”.
‘Nobody’s Perfect’ (2011)
Back in 2011, when he was still a fresh face in the industry, many questioned: how did the small North Carolina boy get hip-hop polymath Missy Elliott on his debut album? But didn’t the two created a criminally forgotten contemporary masterpiece. Over a guitar riff that sounds like one of Missy’s very own productions (but was actually created by Cole himself), the dup sing about life’s hiccups. Sultry but also quite a self-forgiving track, ‘Nobody’s Perfect’ is a great early stowaway.
Best Line: “Hey Cole heatin’ up like that left-over lasagna”.
‘In the Morning’ (2011)
With a sombre track from his third mixtape ‘Friday Night Lights’, Cole proves that he can work with heavyweights from the top of his career. Drake was a rising talent whereas J. Cole was just starting out, but when these two got on the track together to create a soulful ode to that special girl, there was a magical synergy that we hadn’t heard before. ‘In The Morning’ is proof that we need more Drake and J. Cole collaborations – like yesterday.
Best Line: “I’m learning not to judge a woman by the shit that she wears / Therefore, you shouldn’t judge a n***a off of the shit that you hear”.
The opening croons are mesmerizing enough, but once the chorus kicks in (“I keep my head high, I got my wings to carry me”), Cole shows off just how multi-faceted he is. If you want to look for a song that’s quintessentially J. Cole, ‘Apparently’ is a perfect choice. Self-produced and self-written, this Grammy-nominated track is such an uplifting insight into Cole’s talents, and really was a part of his turning point from rapper to star. Explaining his growth from boy to man before showing off his hard work with tongue-twisters at the end, this song is criminally underrated outside of the fandom.
Best Line: “I don’t know freedom / I want my dreams to rescue me”.
‘Jermaine’s Interlude’ (2016)
On this track, which appeared on DJ Khaled’s ninth studio album ‘Major Key’, J. Cole brings out his reflective side whilst ranting about today’s turmoils. Dissecting the current issue of publicised police brutality – since the emergence of Black Lives Matter movement was new at the time – he suggests it’d be hypocritical to talk about how flashy his life is among such problems. Again, this is another moment where we see Cole turn from boy to man right in front of us.
Best Line: “From police that flash the siren and pull up and just start firin’ / N****s murkin’ each other, in murky water I try and swim”.
‘Work Out’ (2011)
Interpolating Paula Abdul’s signature hit ‘Straight Up’, J. Cole’s first Platinum track (two times Platinum, to be exact), from his debut studio album ‘Cole World: The Sideline Story’, blazed the streets of NYC before causing a wildfire through the world. With chirpy piano chords and quirky computerised “do-do”s in the background, ‘Work Out’ proved that simplicity (as well as some boyish charm) is key to making a great all-round, feel-good track back in the ‘10s. And – if you check the catalogue – this track is the catalyst to the star we have today, who’s now shaking hands with moguls.
Best Line: “So is life, take a chance, roll the dice / Money can’t buy you love ’cause it’s overpriced”
‘Power Trip’ (2013)
Moving away from the braggadocio of a young Cole, the Miguel-assisted ‘Power Trip’ helped push boundaries when it came to how rap should sound. Utilising the stellar notes of prolific jazz flutist Hubert Laws’ ‘No More’, the Roc Nation signee overlooked the classic jerky 808s and hit-hats for something more rough. And working with Miguel once again after the popular ‘All I Want Is You’ was a match made in Heaven for this rugged instrumental.
Best Line: “Love is a drug, like the strongest stuff ever and / Fuck it, I’m on one, you feel me?”
‘False Prophets’ (2016)
Cole’s silence was deafening after the huge hit that ‘No Role Modelz’ became. After only releasing singles form his 2014 ‘Forest Hill Drive’ album, as well as doing a few features sparingly with the likes of Janet Jackson and Jeremih, his ‘False Prophets’ had all the blogs creating conspiracies as to who the North Carolina rapper was talking about. Cruising over a beat made famous by Pro Era leader Joey Bada$$, Cole reflects on the current state of rap and its becoming a reductive art form fuelled by popularity. The controversy alone makes ‘False Prophets’ one of J. Cole’s most influential songs to date, but when you analyze the technique in this track, you’ll see Cole is just something else.
Best Line: “Maybe it’s my fault for idolizing n****s based off the words they be rappin’ / But come to find out, these n****s don’t even write they shit”.
‘No Role Modelz’ (2014)
If you hear the phrase “First things first”, 70% of rap fans would think of the opening line to J. Cole’s most prolific tune; “First things first: RIP Uncle Phil”, commemorating the Fresh Prince of Bel Air star James LaRue Avery since his passing in 2013. Before this song, J. Cole had solidified himself as an amazing lyricist craving their space in millennial rap’s Mount Rushmore. However, once this sleeper hit went viral, we were able to appreciate the observant, witty side of Cole. Moving from braggadocio and life tales, ‘No Role Modelz’ was his social commentary on women role models and what now is influencer culture.
Best Line: “Martin Luther King would have been on Dreamville”.
‘Crooked Smile’ (2013)
Featuring the powerful harmonies of T-Boz and Chilli of TLC, Cole becomes quite the motivational speaker on ‘Crooked Smile’ as he explores beauty standards while insisting that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. ‘Born Sinner’ single was his way of giving back to those (especially women) who have looked past his imperfection and supported him. Letting them to know just how amazing they are to him, this song’s sentiment a beautiful one that’s often unheard in rap today.
Best Line: “What’s real is something that the eyes can’t see / That the hands can’t touch / That them broads can’t be, and that’s you”.