When debating the best rapper of the current generation, one name stands out above the rest in that debate: North Carolina’s own, J. Cole. The young gun from Fayetteville, NC made the move to New York with a dollar and a dream and has come along way from his ambitious, yet humble beginnings. Cole has won the hearts of many hip-hop heads with his technically gifted pen and stacked catalog of hits. Though some records have garnered major success while raising a few eyebrows, this article will reflect on the decades worth of content J. Cole has delivered over the span of his career—including both studio album and mixtape releases.
9. The Warm Up (2007)
In a T-Pain hook-dominated era, rappers with substance weren’t getting the big looks they once did in the culture. Enter: J. Cole, a North Carolina native with a chip on his shoulder and the city of Fayetteville on his back. In an effort to make his name ring in the industry, J. Cole teamed up with the legendary DJ OnPoint to deliver his debut mixtape: The Come Up. With rhymes of sheer tenacity over classic instrumentals, the project displayed Cole’s immense potential to become one of the greats. Though it has its rough patches, The Come Up is pretty solid, taking into consideration it was Cole’s first official tape.
Best tracks: “Simba”, “Dollar & a Dream”, “Lil Ghetto N***a”, “Dead Presidents”
8. KOD (2018)
As the SoundCloud wave was flourishing, the movement was met with major opposition from those who heavily disagreed with the glorification of drugs as a means to cope with life’s stresses. KOD would be Cole’s attempt to clear the air on this new wave and its criticisms. Intended to cover three different meanings (Kids On Drugs, Kill Our Demons, King OverDosed), the album tried to deliver social commentary and introspective reflection, while balancing braggadocios flows with poetic slams, but fell flat in terms of execution. It tries to slip the medicine into the candy, but sometimes this mixture doesn’t fully get the job done. Essentially, KOD is the jack of all trades, but master of none.
Best tracks: “Kevin’s Heart”, “ATM”, “BRACKETS”, “Window Pain”
7. Cole World: The Sideline Story (2011)
Cole’s major label debut was an interesting case. After a year and a half of promotion with no release date and no lead single prepared, Cole’s career was seemingly backed into a corner. In an effort to finally get a release date, Cole was forced to make a string of radio-friendly records to fit the label’s process. This sense of conformation still leaves a bitter taste in the mouthes of fans who saw Cole as the one who would direct the culture back to its humble beginnings rather than drag on its flashy exaggerations.
But the radio reach overshadowed the general perception of this record. Cole World: The Sideline Story still manages to fit in a multitude of records that show an ambitious Cole trying to find his spot in the culture. This aspirational style that appeared on tracks like “Sideline Story” and “Rise & Shine” embodied the side of Cole that fans wanted to see succeed, but would ultimately be sacrificed in order to actually release the album. Cole did his best to balance the best of both worlds, but ended up with a product that most would either call dated or underrated.
Best tracks: “Sideline Story”, “Rise & Shine”, “Lost Ones”, “Lights Please”
6. The Off-Season (2021)
The release of KOD found Cole in a peculiar position as he noticed his passionate flame for hip-hop began to dwindle. Following an iconic feature run that would leave fans begging for more, The Off-Season found Cole returning to his mixtape roots. A full-fledged blaze took place of what was once a mere candlelight – Cole was back in top shape. Rather than honing in on a singular concept, The Off-Season kept things basic as Cole was rapping purely for the love of the sport. Each track was a non-stop barfest that gave listeners a reminiscent glimpse of the hunger from Cole’s early mixtape days. While the sporadic array of tracks may come off as directionless to some, this record is poignant to those who understand the significance of Cole’s mixtape background.
Best tracks: “Let Go My Hand”, “My Life”, “The Climb Back”, “Hunger on Hillside”
5. 4 Your Eyez Only (2016)
4 Your Eyez Only holds the spot for the most polarizing album on this list. After taking a step back following the successful tour for 2014 Forest Hills Drive, J. Cole found himself in a comfortable position – a little too comfortable for most. The Carolina emcee spent years with a chip on his shoulder until the drastic weight of the world was lifted and he was free, financially and spiritually. However, this sense of relief would leave Cole unmotivated to continue recording. In efforts to rekindle the spark, Cole created a concept album that would exhibit the hardships of his fallen ally growing up in Fayetteville, NC.
The record gave a deep look into various crippling issues such as systematic oppression and racial tensions, but it did so at an unconventional rate. Cole’s writing on 4 Your Eyez Only was exceptional, spawning some of the best material of his career to this day. The record also does a great job of building a mesmerizing atmosphere and maintaining a cohesive nature. But what keeps the consistency lacking is the dull sound of the somber sonics and failed ideas that could have been executed better. Cole maintained a solid composure all throughout this record, but a sense of disconnect held the album back from achieving further greatness.
Best tracks: “4 Your Eyez Only”, “Change”, “Immortal”, “Neighbors”, “Deja Vu”
4. Born Sinner (2013)
Typically the sleeper pick in Cole’s discography, Born Sinner is the starting point of Cole’s road to redemption, allowing him to regain control over his career while reacquiring the support of his core fanbase. This record did a 180 degree turn from the bright lights of the camera flashes and delved deeper into the depression that artists go through once they find themselves detached from their foundation. Cole dedicates a large majority of the record to facing his own personal struggles; from exposing unfaithfulness in celebrity life on “Runaway” to confronting and accepting one’s personal flaws on “Crooked Smile”, Cole managed to regain his credibility with his brutally honest writing on this record; all while maintaining an accessible sound that doesn’t get lost in mainstream dilution.
Best tracks: “Runaway”, “Power Trip”, “Rich N****z”, “Forbidden Fruit”, “Let Nas Down”, “Born Sinner”
3. The Warm Up (2009)
The explosive mixtape that helped fine tune Cole’s style. The Warm Up was Cole’s breakthrough project that elevated him to new heights, allowing him to land a record deal with Jay-Z’s newly established, Roc Nation. Feeding off the buzz from his first mixtape, Cole knew he had to come correct on his follow-up project. In order to match the hype, he maintained the formula that was applied on The Come Up, but immensely amped up its tenacity. Cole was shredding beats from beginning to end, exhibiting a high level of lyrical exercise; all while simultaneously penning thought-provoking records to better show both sides of his lyricism. This tape is Cole in his hungriest form, showing no mercy on any beats and displaying immense potential to take his career to a higher altitude.
Best tracks: “Dead Presidents II”, “I Get Up”, “Dreams”, “Can I Live”, “Lights Please”, “Grown Simba”
2. 2014 Forest Hills Drive (2014)
The project that launched Cole from B-list celebrity status to a household name; 2014 Forest Hills Drive is easily Cole’s most well-known work to date. After facing the trials and tribulations of the music industry and redeeming himself from corporate sellout allegations, Cole took a step back from the industry and began making music he wanted to make, not what others wanted to hear from him. This new space that Cole found himself in brought forth another layer to his artistry and showed that he wasn’t the same hit-chasing machine he initially sought out to be.
2014 Forest Hills Drive displayed Cole in a different light, one that fans hadn’t seen him in before but was reminiscent of the Cole they knew and rocked with on the mixtapes. Rather than trying to rap in front of the world, Cole’s approach to this album was like a young emcee rapping to himself in the mirror. The songwriting on this record was far more intimate than any other Cole project, which helped open up his audience range to touch more people without trying. To sum it up, 2014 Forest Hills Drive was Cole coming to terms with his flaws and embracing them rather than hiding behind the trance of materialistic wealth. Sure it spawned a long-running joke about his humbleness, but this record has managed to touch hip-hop fans of all ranges and solidify itself as a modern-day classic.
Best tracks: “Love Yourz”, “’03 Adolescence”, “A Tale of 2 Citiez”, “January 28th”, “Fire Squad”, “No Role Modelz”, “Wet Dreamz”
1. Friday Night Lights (2010)
While 2014 Forest Hills Drive is a staple in hip-hop communities across the net, J. Cole has yet to land the peaks he reached as an emcee on Friday Night Lights. A young Carolina emcee with mainstream success in his rearview but no release date in sight, Cole was in an awkward position during his first years. The newly hot spitter wielded the talent and potential to go far in the rap game, but the label wasn’t convinced that he was ready. In a last-minute effort to save the dwindling hype surrounding his name, Cole sporadically released Friday Night Lights: a mixtape that salvaged pieces of his debut album and compiled them with fresh tracks to keep the anticipation levels high. Just like that, the young Carolina spitter was back on track.
What keeps Friday Night Lights so beloved among Cole’s fanbase is the mixture of vulnerability in his writing and ambitiousness to make his name heard. A last-minute effort in academics would leave scholars submitting half-assed attempts but the rushed nature of this mixtape’s release made it easier to show that Cole was a genuine student of hip-hop. From saluting classic hip-hop moments to sampling timeless records, Friday Night Lights showed that there was no faking this funk. Records like the adrenaline-pumping “Before I’m Gone” exhibited Cole’s sharp emcee skills and quick wit, while the Badu-sampled “Too Deep For The Intro” brought out the sensitive, yet relatable side of Cole that won fans over in the beginning.
This tape covers many different ranges for Cole as he displays his versatile approach to records, but the main factor that keeps Friday Night Lights close to the listener’s heart is the extreme ambitiousness that fuels Cole’s fire. With the industry nearly blocking his entry point to the game, Cole was determined to jump over these hurdles by any means necessary to achieve his goal. They say the fans love a good underdog story, but somehow someway everyone can relate to this tale of rejection-driven aspiration. Not only did it make fans admirably want to see Cole succeed, the tape brought out a side of Cole that we’ve yet to see reemerge in his decade-long career. Call it what you want, there’s no denying that Friday Night Lights was the true beginning to one of the best runs in hip-hop we’ve seen over the last few years.
Best tracks: “Before I’m Gone”, “Too Deep for the Intro”, “Back to the Topic (Freestyle)”, “Premeditated Murder”, “Enchanted”, “Villematic”, “Blow Up”, “2Face”