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The 25 Best J. Cole Songs of All-Time

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When JAY-Z started up Roc Nation in the late 2000s, his intention was for it to be a label full of Pop artists. That was until he heard J. Cole’s music through a friend and business partner. Cole ended up being the first rapper signed to the label in February of 2009 and in the decade-plus since then, he’s built for himself one of the more successful careers in Hip-Hop history.

The Fayetteville rapper has 6 solo albums, 3 label albums, 3 mixtapes, and bundles of other projects like the Any Given Sundays, the Truly Yours trilogy, and more. We scoured his entire discography, loosies and all, to pick out his 25 best songs. Check them out below and let us know if you feel we missed anything out.

1. ‘03’ Adolescence’

On track four from album number three, J. Cole takes us back to his teen years, when he was 18-years-old to be exact. This song embodies part of what Cole does so well in stepping into other people’s shoes and giving their perspectives. The passion in his voice while he raps from his friend’s perspective, wondering why his parents bothered conceiving him if they didn’t want him anyway, is chilling.

2. ‘2Face’

Although it didn’t come out until J. Cole was a couple of years into his Roc Nation deal, ‘2Face’ was recorded when Cole was 24 and there’s footage of it on YouTube. It’s a standout not only from Friday Night Lights, but from his entire body of work. The hunger is apparent in both his tone and aggressive flow. “Wrote this when I was broke, so hey, I guess we even” will also resonate, along with the outro which Cole has emotionally talked about before, saying he had no business being so hopeful in life.

3. ‘4 Your Eyez Only’

This title track was the outro of Cole’s 2016 album, which came around as a result of him feeling like he was telling his story too much. To keep things fresh, he crafted the LP around a fictional story, although he did such a good job with this summation record that many believe it’s real. At nearly 9 minutes, Cole raps three verses from a friend who suffers from the “crooked ass system” and a final verse where he reveals that the album is for his friend’s daughter.

4. ‘a m a r I’

When he released KOD, fans thought that J. Cole was mimicking the style of newer rappers as a mockery, but he was quick to correct them. On his latest album The Off-Season, there are more elements from the younger scene in Hip-Hop, particularly the guitar. ‘a m a r I’ is a great example of that. Cole’s melodies rival those that have made the style their signature and this song feels like a celebration of making it to where he made it from, from where he made it from.

5. ‘Before I’m Gone’

The elements of this song are essentially what every J. Cole fan wants to hear from him. He speaks on the struggle as though he is currently in it, observes it in third person and then reminisces on his own life and journey to where he is now. ‘Before I’m Gone’ is a classic example of Cole’s ability to poetically put his thoughts down on paper.

6. ‘BRACKETS’

‘BRACKETS’ of course refers to tax brackets, a topic which J. Cole attacks in a few different ways. He marvels at the amount of tax he’s paying, ponders where his money goes and then proposes that he should be able to pick what he funds with his taxes through an app. At the end, he ties it all together by talking about a company making guns with tax money, which end up circulating the hood, ending lives. The mother of a boy killed by one of those guns remembers on the day of his funeral that she needs to pay her taxes, thus adding to the cycle. From the Richard Prior sample to the Lil Cole cameo, this one is structured really well.

7. ‘Can I Holla At Ya’

Released in 2013, ‘Can I Holla At Ya’ came out as part of the first Truly Yours. On each of the three verses over Lauryn Hill’s ‘To Zion’, Cole talks to three people from earlier in his life. A former partner, his stepfather and an old friend who is now on drugs and treats him differently due to his fame. The mellow instrumental that fades in and out makes for the perfect backdrop for Cole to pour his heart out over.

8. ‘Can I Live’

Off the rapper’s 2009 mixtape The Warm Up, ‘Can I Live’ is a nod to the JAY-Z song of the same name, but isn’t over the same instrumental. He’s unapologetic about following his dreams in the first verse, but the standout moment of the track comes in verse number two when he tells the story of a murder of a 21-year-old. The beat gets stripped down so the focus is on Cole’s words, which are intentionally short and blunt to get the point across.

9. ‘Hold It Down’

Towards the end of the 2009 mixtape The Warm Up comes ‘Hold It Down’, a record Cole penned about his own life and his relationships with an old friend of his and his then-girlfriend and now-wife. This one feels like a time capsule because of how honest the North Carolina rapper is, especially in the third verse when he wonders aloud about his own commitment to his girlfriend when the money and fame comes along. Hindsight with ‘She Knows’ and ‘Runaway’ (which appears later on this list) make the moment all the more impactful.

10. ‘I Get Up’

‘I Get Up’ is about dreaming and perseverance, the type that people play in hard times to remind them about what they’re doing it all for. Released in 2009 as part of The Warm Up, it only gets more special to hear year after year as J. Cole becomes more and more successful, like proof that you can make it through. The trumpets and anthemic chorus give it a grand feel.

11. ‘It Won’t Be Long’

This is a song that leaked in 2010 while J. Cole was working on his debut album. It was supposed to be on it, or at least the first version of it. He talked about the leak’s drums not hitting as hard as the final version, but we never ended up hearing it. Either way, this is the type of song that should have made the cut for the album instead of songs like ‘Cole World’.

12. ‘Lil Ghetto N*gga’

Like the aforementioned ‘I Get Up’, this one feels like something out of a museum with what we know about how J. Cole’s career went. Released in 2007 when he was just 22, ‘Lil Ghetto N*gga’ covers the topics that Cole fans love, but with a much more aggressive, hungrier tone.

13. ‘Losing My Balance’

A bonus track from The Warm Up, this song was so crucial for J. Cole because it was amplified by its context. At the time in Hip-Hop, something like ‘Losing My Balance’ was the last thing people expected to hear. It’s one of the main songs that made people compare Cole to Pac in his early years because it’s basically a women’s empowerment record. He also raps about seeing a woman first for her physical features, but then falling in love with her for he she is.

14. ‘Lost Ones’

‘Lost Ones’ is such an important piece of J. Cole’s discography because it was a song he made back in 2007 that helped him get signed to JAY-Z. Before the song leaked in June of 2011, it was like a myth to J. Cole fans, who had heard about it in a small handful of interviews, and it still ended up living up to the hype. It tells the story of an early, unplanned pregnancy and potential abortion from the man and the woman’s perspective.

15. ‘Love Yourz’

‘Love Yourz’ is the embodiment of 2014 Forest Hills Drive and the epiphany that J. Cole had that year about going home. On the track, he conveys how everyone has enough in their life that they can be grateful for right now, which is where true happiness comes from. He talks about the fact that he was happier when he was broke and uses that information to urge people to appreciate what they have. This is the type of song that Cole could close his live shows out with forever.

16. ‘Ni**az Know’

A cut from Truly Yours 3, which was also the deluxe edition of Born Sinner, when it dropped, ‘Ni**az Know’ was a rare instance of J. Cole hitting the Hip-Hop cliché of bragging and he did it incredibly well. He incorporates Biggie’s flow and lyrics from ‘Notorious Thugs’ for a pair of his hardest verses.

17. ‘Once An Addict (Interlude)’

It’s rare that an interlude is one of the better songs on an album, but that was the case here with ‘Once An Addict’ on J. Cole’s 2018 album KOD. The entire album is about addiction, but this is the most personal example on the album, with Cole talking about his mother’s drug addiction and how it affected him as a child. The rapper revealed that there was a longer version of this initially, but the shorter version was as impactful. We’d still love to hear it uncut.

18. ‘Premeditated Murder’

Just like ‘It Won’t Be Long’, ‘Premeditated Murder’ probably should have been on J. Cole’s first album, but its delays meant that he felt he had to put out Friday Night Lights in the meanwhile. The second verse is a classic example of Cole talking to his girlfriend with lines that could be interpreted as being towards his original fans, which he has confirmed before.

19. ‘Return Of Simba’

This context of this song is so key. It dropped when Cole was a few weeks away from releasing his debut album after nearly two years of delays, when many were saying the album would never drop at all. The song itself felt like a triumph. It completed the trilogy that started with ‘Simba’ and continued with ‘Grown Simba’ and for our money, is the best of the three. “Cole under pressure, what that make? Diamonds”

20. ‘Revenge Of The Dreamers’

This is the title track of the label project that was released to celebrate Dreamville Records signing with Interscope. It was the standout of the body of work. The beat itself feels reflective, which makes for a pair of vintage J. Cole verses where he ponders feeling guilty about his success and talks to a woman about their potential.

21. ‘Runaway’

This song boasts a couple of the best verses of J. Cole’s career. On ‘Runaway’, he discusses some of the evils of the world, including his own infidelity, although he does it vaguely enough that it’s almost like he hasn’t come to terms with it himself, which is likely intentional. He also tells a story about a manager of his that was racist, then linking it back to slavery which his own grandmother was directly affected by.

22. ‘Show Me Something’

The majority of ‘Show Me Something’ sees Cole pleading with God for a sign and some guidance while his faith is being tested. It’s hard not to hear this song and feel inspired on whatever journey you might be on. 

23. ‘Song For The Ville’

When people talk about J. Cole making the struggle seem beautiful and being relatable, this is a key example. It’s a shame that something of this calibre was left off of an official album or mixtape, but we’re grateful to have heard it anyway. ‘Song For The Ville’ is J. Cole being aspirational whilst also seeming thankful to just be alive when so many others aren’t. And of course, it’s dedicated to his hometown.

24. ‘Too Deep For The Intro’

J. Cole was once asked what some of the best verses he’d ever written were and he referred to this song, but wasn’t able to pick one of the two verses. ‘Too Deep For The Intro’ is a song that you could play for a random stranger on the street and by the end, they’d feel like they knew J. Cole personally. 

25. ‘Unabomber’

This song, recorded in 2010, originally surfaced on the internet before an official release, but J. Cole ended up putting it at the end of the first Any Given Sunday release. The title is a reference to Ted Kaczynski, a serial killer who sent multiple mail bombs over a couple of decades. Cole uses it as a pun to say he’s “blowing up overnight”, but the real story of the song is how it feels like he’s having a conversation with the listener and just happens to be rhyming.

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