Music

20 Best J. Cole Songs

Rapper J. Cole has made many great songs and these are the greatest.
By Drew MillardPublished on
J. Cole at New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival
J. Cole at New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival
Though J. Cole rarely makes music that caters to trends or incites allegiance among hypebeasts, the North Carolina rapper/producer has carved out a space for himself as one of the most reliable hitmakers in hip-hop. Throughout his career, Cole, who has been nominated for four Grammy Awards but hasn't yet taken one home, has mastered the role of rap game everyman, equally at ease when he’s crafting tracks about chasing girls or fighting the system.
He’s also a wizard behind the boards, displaying an acumen for sampling that remains underrated and rarely discussed. Yeah, he’s not necessarily interested in being cool, and yeah, his biggest recent hit is called “Wet Dreamz.” But it is folly to write J. Cole off because of surface level gripes.
The Roc Nation MC managed to accomplish what celebrated rappers such as Beanie Sigel, Freeway, Memphis Bleek and Young Chris could not: He stepped out from under the long shadow of Jay Z, whose stature in the rap game often inadvertently obscured his label signees.
In recent years, meanwhile, Cole has emerged as an important voice in rap, offering a politicized but never preachy take on race and class in America, culminating in his most recent record, "2014 Forest Hills Drive."
J. Cole is one of the headliners at Lollapalooza 2016, so we decided to take a look back at his music. These are his 20 best songs.

20. "Last Call"

Early on in his career, J. Cole displayed a creative debt to Kanye West, going so far as to celebrate his signing to Jay Z’s Roc Nation by ending his mixtape The Warm-Up by remaking Yeezy’s "Last Call." But even early on in his career, Cole displayed a preternatural assurance on the mic, rapping, “Time for a Carolina n—ga to take his place with the greats” with the type of confidence that would prove prophetic.

19. "I’m On 2.0"

What’s better than Trae tha Truth assembling an all-star cast of rappers to spit over Mark Morrison’s "Return of the Mack?" Trae tha Truth recruiting Mark Morrison himself to appear in the video. Cole appears, alongside Trae, Jadakiss, Big K.R.I.T., Kendrick Lamar, B.o.B., Tyga, Gudda Gudda, and Bun B, delivering a verse full of empathy and heart.

18. "Black Friday"

Last November, J. Cole and Kendrick Lamar gave rap fans a treat by rapping over each other’s beats. Lamar spat over Cole’s "A Tale of 2 Citiez," while Cole requisitioned Lamar’s "Alright" to turn the politicized anthem into a prime smack-talk session.

17. "Children of Men"

Often, Cole delivers his best work when he has a collaborator pushing him to expand his worldview. He’s found an unlikely creative partner in Trae tha Truth, the Houston rap veteran with whom he’s made several tracks. On the Cole-produced "Children of Men," the pair link up to drop some frank talk about hood sociopolitics.

16. "Who Dat"

For his first major single, J. Cole elected to eschew high-profile guest verses, instead relying on his natural charisma and a monster marching band sample. A bridge between his underground mixtapes and his position on Jay Z’s Roc Nation, the "Who Dat" video was shot in a single take in Cole’s hometown of Fayetteville, North Carolina.

15. "Ladies"

Cole takes to soul samples like a duck to water. Here, he loops Lee Fields’ "Ladies," off Fields’ spacey, mournful 2009 record My World, creating a ballad of big butts and lost love.

14. "No Sleeep"

Janet Jackson enlisted J. Cole for her first single in five years, a gliding quiet storm number that proved Jackson hadn’t lost a step in her time away. Cole, who shared a production credit on the song with Jackson and the duo Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, offers charming love-raps, serving the same function that Q-Tip once did on Jackson’s “On and On.”

13. "A Tale of 2 Citiez"

Cole very much came into his own on 2014 Forest Hill Drive, an album released with little notice, featuring production primarily from Cole himself and no guest verses. The record went platinum, largely off the strength of its cohesion as an album. "A Tale of 2 Citiez" was a vicious cut that helped break the pastoral nostalgia of the album’s first third, dragging the record into the here and now.
J Cole
J Cole

12. "N--gaz Know"

J. Cole often makes a point of incorporating classic rap tropes into his own tracks, whether it’s impersonating Dungeon Family narrator Big Rube on 2014 Forest Hills Drive’s "Fire Squad," or the neat trick he pulled on Born Sinner’s "N--gaz Know." The verses find Cole mirroring Biggie’s flow on “Notorious Thugs,” while flipping the same Chambers Brothers song that OutKast sampled for "ATLiens" in a completely different way than Kast did.

11. "Caged Bird"

Some of Cole’s best work can be found on his label Dreamville’s Revenge of the Dreamers mixtapes, which often have a looser feel than Cole’s album work. The Omen-featuring "Caged Bird," off the second Revenge … tape, finds Cole tackling the prison-industrial complex with nuance and wit.

10. "Looking for Trouble"

Remember the "G.O.O.D. Fridays" series? It was great. Anyways, J. Cole contributed a verse to this thundering "G.O.O.D. Fridays" track, which also features Big Sean, Kanye, CyHi da Prince, and Pusha T. Cole finishes the track out, supplying a blistering verse that helped cement the young spitter’s place in the pantheon of young talent that emerged in the early 2010s.

9. "She Knows"

J. Cole sampling Cults and collaborating with a member of Dirty Projectors? J. Cole sampling Cults and collaborating with a member of Dirty Projectors! "She Knows" features background vocals from Amber Coffman. Often, when hip-hop and indie rock collide the results can be awkward or stilted, but Cole incorporates indie into his repertoire in a way that feels like a natural extension of his sensibilities, rather than a crass commercial play. For further evidence of Cole’s knack for flipping indie samples, check his track "Rise Above," which features a sample from none other than the Dirty Projectors themselves.

8. "G.O.M.D."

"G.O.M.D." is a frenetic track in which Cole showcases a plethora of vocal styles, from crunk-esque chants to melodic, Bone-Thugs-style fast-rapping to straight-up singing. It’s one of the most technically impressive tracks in Cole’s catalog, while his lyrics are brash and political — part Master P, part Public Enemy.

7. "They Ready"

Cole collided with fellow future heavyweights Big K.R.I.T. and Kendrick Lamar for this cut off DJ Khaled’s Kiss the Ring. Riding a self-produced beat built around a triumphant Willie Hutch sample, Cole helps elevate the self-congratulatory tone typical of a Khaled album to one of abject hunger and drive.
Listen: "They Ready"

6. "Cole Summer"

One of the most winning elements of J. Cole’s persona is his willingness to reveal the artifice behind commonly held hip-hop tropes. "Cole Summer" is a tour de force of self-examination, admitting the infamous photos of him and Drake making it rain in a strip club found him spending a fraction of what Drizzy had thrown and lamenting that his label head Jay Z had forced him into awkward studio sessions with the pop producers Stargate. Meant to build hype for his sophomore album Cole Summer, the track ends with a dedication to summer, a la Hov’s "Dear Summer."

5. "Can’t Get Enough"

Whenever J. Cole lodges a pop hit, it tends to be on his terms and his terms alone. The Trey Songz collaboration "Can’t Get Enough" reached the Billboard Urban top 10 while featuring some of the deftest technical rapping on Cole’s debut album Cole World: The Sideline Story. Cole shouts out Talib Kweli and U.G.K. in one line, allowing him to place himself on a continuum of rappers whose influences transcend region or labels, even as he and Trey drop come-ons during the hook.

4. "Folgers Crystals"

The intro of 2015’s the Revenge of the Dreamers II compilation of Dreamville artists, "Folgers Crystals" serves as a spacey statement of intent for Cole, who by then had become bigger than ever. "Now I can be the change that I wanna see," he raps, reflecting on a year that found him fully embracing his role as an activist and a leader in hip-hop.

3. "Power Trip"

J. Cole reconnected with Miguel for this single, which served as a spiritual successor to Miguel’s breakout, Cole-featuring track "All I Want Is You." Cole welded a sample of jazz great Hubert Laws' "No More" onto a molasses-thick drum pattern for this anthemic love song, creating a yearning urgency spurred on by the two stars.

2. "Work Out"

One of Cole’s biggest hits was nearly an afterthought, a Cole World bonus track that combined the vocoded vocals closed out the extended version of Kanye West’s "New Workout Plan" with a Paula Abdul sample for a bouncy summer classic that dominated parties and playlists alike in the summer of 2011.

1. "Be Free" (Live on Letterman Version)

For all his ambition and talent, J. Cole has often struggled to be seen outside of hip-hop as a revolutionary force. That changed with "Be Free," which he released in response to summer 2014, full of police violence against young black men. Cole had been a quiet presence at protests both in Ferguson, Missouri, and New York City, choosing to simply support the Black Lives Matter movement rather than drawing attention to himself and risking that the media focus on his involvement. "Be Free" would prove an important song for Cole, but also an anomaly in his catalog. Rather than relying on nimble rapping and clever wordplay, Cole sang mournfully, his pain palpable in his voice. When he performed the track that December on David Letterman, he added a verse that encapsulated the nation’s frustrations with a system and a president set up to fail. "That’s what I get for thinkin’ this world is fair / They let a brother steer the ship and never told him that the ship was sinkin’," he rapped. After he was done, all Letterman could muster was "Oh my god."