Ten years ago, J Cole released his debut album, Cole World: The Sideline Story. In the years since, he’s become one of the most influential artists in rap. All of his studio albums have been certified platinum, he’s won a string of awards (including a Grammy Award, three Soul Train Music Awards, and eight BET Hip Hop Awards), and gifted us with some of the finest tracks of the past 20 years. Here’s our pick of the 10 best J Cole songs of all time.
As NME writes, the opening croons of Apparently are mesmerizing enough, but once the chorus kicks in, Cole shows off the full range of his talents. Entirely self-produced and self-written, it’s an incredible tour de force, revealing just how far he’d come in the years since his first mixtape. It might not be that well known outside of his core fan base, but this is the point that Cole graduated from a rapper to a star.
9. Crooked Smile
As Billboard notes, on Crooked Smile, Cole talks about embracing his insecurities and accepting himself, even though he knows he’s not perfect. On lines like “So all you see is what you lackin’, not what you packin’/Take it from a man that loves what you got/And baby girl, you a star, don’t let ’em tell you you’re not,” he implores the woman in his life to do the same. Self-acceptance might be a theme that’s been done to death, but Cole avoids sounding like a broken record thanks to some sparkling rhymes and superbly powerful harmonies from T-Boz and Chilli of TLC. Released June 4, 2013, as the second single from his second studio album, Born Sinner, it peaked at No. 27 on the US Billboard Hot 100 chart.
8. In the Morning
In the Morning was initially recorded as a solo effort by Cole for his third mixtape, Friday Night Lights. When Drake became aware of it, he asked Cole if he could guest on it if he ever got around to re-recording it. Cole agreed and, true to his word, invited Drake to add some lines when he decided to include the track on his debut album. The result is flawless, with both artists bouncing off each other like they’d been performing together for years. Released in March 2011, it peaked at No. 97 on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart and No. 17 on the Bubbling Under Hot 100 Singles.
7. Blow Up
Even before he landed a record deal, Cole was winning huge attention thanks to his mixtapes. His third, 2010’s Friday Night Lights, is a classic, boasting some of the most carefully crafted and irresistible songs of Cole’s career. Blow Up is one of its highlights. He decided not to include it on his debut album, perhaps suspecting it wasn’t quite as radio-friendly as it needed to be; either way, it’s a gem, and well worth a listen for anyone interested in taking a deep dive into Cole’s pre-fame career.
6. Work Out
Back in 2011, Jay-Z was pressurizing Cole to come up with a hit single. Cole passed Blow Up, Who Dat, and Higher by him, but none passed muster. Struck for anything else to do, Cole decided to sample the king of sampling, Kanye West, add in a touch of Paula Abdul’s signature hit Straight Up, throw in a bunch of computer-generated “do-do’s” and some tinkly piano, and, in the process, managed to create one of the most feel-good tunes of the 2010s. Work Out ended up certifying double platinum and charting at No. 13 on the Billboard Hot 100.
5. Power Trip
Teaming up with Miguel for 2013’s Power Trip was clearly a wise move on Cole’s part. There’s less bravado, less swagger, and plenty of extremely savvy storytelling – paired with an insanely chewy hook and some great chemistry with Miguel, it combines to create an incredibly appealing, mature-sounding song that stands out as one of the highlights of Cole’s second studio album, Born Sinner. It peaked at No.46 on the UK Singles Chart (his highest-charting single there) and at No.19 on the US Billboard Hot 100.
4. No Role Modelz
As hotnewhiphop.com says, No Role Modelz features one of the most arresting instrumentals of Cole’s career. The overall message of the song (which sees Cole claiming that “L.A. hoes” are shallow and materialistic because the only role models they have in life are talentless TV reality starts) is a bit divisive, but there’s no denying that hook. Released as a single from Cole’s third studio album, 2014 Forest Hills Drive, it peaked at No. 36 on the Billboard Hot 100, giving Cole his fourth Top 40 hit as a solo artist. In 2016, it was officially certified platinum by the RIAA.
3. A Tale Of 2 Citiez
A Tale Of 2 Citiez is epic in scale. Like the Charles Dickens novel that inspired its name, it deals with themes of spirituality, poverty, and crime, all of which are tackled with a sense of rebellion and menace that’s rare to hear from Cole, but which doesn’t go amiss. The addition of samples from Blocka by Pusha T and Bring Em Out by T.I. are a great touch. Released in December 2014 from his third album, 2014 Forest Hills Drive, it was a major hit, selling over 2 million copies in the US alone and certifying double platinum.
2. Nobody’s Perfect
Back in 2011, Cole was a virtual unknown. How he managed to convince hip-hop legend Missy Elliott to perform with him is a question only he can answer, but he did, and the result, Nobody’s Perfect, is sensational. A choppy guitar riff (which was created by Cole) sets the foundation for a sultry number about life’s little ups and downs. Released on February 6, 2012, it made it to No. 4 on the Billboard Rap Songs chart and No. 3 on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart.
1. Lights Please
Lights Please made its first appearance on the mixtape, The Warm Up. After seeing how well it went down at live shows, Cole started pitching it to record labels. Eventually, it found its way into the hands of Mark Pitts (who’d later become Cole’s manager) who passed it on to Jay-Z. Jay-Z heard it, liked it, set up a meeting with Cole, and in no time at all, Cole had been signed to Roc Nation. When he came around to releasing his debut studio album, Cole World: The Sideline Story, in 2011, it was only right that Lights Please should serve as its centerpiece. A tangled tale of sex, politics, and mortality, it’s Cole at his very finest.