Top 25 Best J. Cole Songs Of All Time

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Counting down the best tracks in J.Cole's catalogue.

Jermaine Lamarr Cole is a different breed. Ever since he signed to Jay-Z’s Roc Nation imprint in 2009, Cole has been solidifying his status as a new-school leader and a future legend in the game. Before releasing his debut album Cole World: The Sideline Story, Jermaine dropped two classic mixtapes, The Warm Up, and Friday Night Lights. Cuts from the critically acclaimed mixtapes like “Lights Please,” “Too Deep For the Intro,” and “In the Morning,” helped launch Cole’s career from the relatively unknown town of Fayetteville, North Carolina. Cole was born in Germany as a military kid and was relocated to America by his mother after his father evaporated. At age 12, Cole was already flexing his skills on the mic, but being discovered in North Carolina didn’t seem like a realistic goal for the young wordsmith. After graduating high-school at the top of his class, Cole received a scholarship to St. John’s University in New York and relocated to the Big Apple to pursue both his degree and a career in rap music.

Moving to New York was monumental for Cole’s career. While Jay-Z was recording his American Gangster album, Cole ambushed him outside the studio and was ultimately dismissed by the Roc-A-Fella founder, who instructed young Jermaine to hand his demo CD to someone else. A year later, record producer Mark Pitts would play “Lights Please” for Jay, which broke down the barrier and allowed Cole to finally have a sit down with HOV. At the time, Jay had just started Roc Nation, and wasn’t planning on signing raps artists. Jay expressed his acquired weariness of rappers from his Roc-A-Fella days, and wished to capitalize on the pop success he created when serving as President for Def Jam (he engineered the success of both Ne-yo and Rihanna, pop icons). Cole’s pure talent caught Jay off guard and prompted him to change his game plan from signing straight pop artists, to balancing rap acts as well.

In the last eight years, Jermaine has blessed his fans with classic titles, unforgettable instrumentals, and a wealth of knowledge. Not to mention, he has built his own label from the ground up, Dreamville Records, that houses a multitude of talent, such as EarthGang, J.I.D., Cozz, and Bas. Cole’s tutelage under No I.D. elevated his beat making capabilities, while his apprenticeship with HOV has increased his lyricism, hustle and intelligence. He has a plethora of hits in his catalogue, so many in fact that it took weeks to dig through them and construct a list worthy of consideration. Building a definitive list of the best J. Cole songs was a formidable, gargantuan, and challenging task that we did not take lightly. We apologize now, if your favourite Cole track doesn’t appear on our list (although that’s highly doubtful), Jermaine simply has too many bangers. The songs that changed the rap game, influenced our daily lives, or displayed the growth of one of hip-hop brightest stars, were placed at the forefront of our rankings. So, without further ado, here is our list of the 25 best J. Cole songs.


Work Out

Top 25 Best J. Cole Songs Of All Time

Produced by: J. Cole

Album: Cole World: The Sideline Story

As the story goes, Cole was pressed for a single by his boss, Jay-Z. He turned in several selections, like "Blow Up," "Who Dat," and "Higher," but HOV was looking for something different. In a serendipitous turn of events, J. Cole sampled the master sampler, Kanye West, and created a hit record. Using just the end of Kanye's "The New Work Out Plan," and interpolating Paula Abdul's "Straight Up," Cole created a double platinum hit that peaked at #13 on Billboard's Hot 100. This was the song that introduced millions of people to Jermaine, and it earned him his highest charting single. When "Work Out" comes on, you sing along, because it's a perfectly crafted.

I Get Up

Top 25 Best J. Cole Songs Of All Time

Produced by: J. Cole

Album: The Warm Up 

On “I Get Up” Cole becomes possessed by the spirit of Tupac, and delivers a monumental record about the struggles of life in the hood. True to the essence of Shakur, Cole takes aim at the government and the systematic, institutionalized racism that effects so many minorities in this country. The instrumental is a potent mix of gospel, R&B, and jazz, giving “I Get Up” that Sunday morning music feeling. Many rappers come off as “preachy” with their holier than thou mentalities and over-the-top gimmicks, but Cole is a talented pastor, poet, and wordsmith that finds balance in knowledge and ignorance. 

Power Trip feat. Miguel

Top 25 Best J. Cole Songs Of All Time

Produced by: J. Cole

Album: Born Sinner

Cole and Miguel first collaborated on the smash hit “All I Want Is You,” back in 2010, and their follow-up did not fail to deliver. “Power Trip” features a distorted guitar loop that brazenly sets itself apart from other radio singles because of its unique sound. Cole has confirmed that “Power Trip” is a follow up to his mixtape cut “Dreams,” where Jermaine’s unhealthy obsession with his crush leads him to kill her lover and steal her away. “Power Trip” was the first single off Cole’s sophomore album, and it displayed his artistic growth, as both a producer and a rapper, from his much more formulaic freshman album. 

Cole World

Top 25 Best J. Cole Songs Of All Time

Produced by: J. Cole

Album: Cole World: The Sideline Story

The title track off Cole's debut album is a contagious club single disguised as an album cut. "Cole World" could have easily been the first single off The Sideline Story with its jolting synths and infectious handclaps. Even on this banger that could be played in the club, or on the radio, Cole speaks about politics and education, referencing his own student loans as the cause for his gambling. In 2011, Cole stylized his logo to depict an angel and a devil. "Cole World" is a perfect balance of good and evil with ignorant and virtuous lyrics, showcasing the balance of Cole's lyrical approach. 

Mr. Nice Watch feat. Jay Z

Top 25 Best J. Cole Songs Of All Time

Produced by: J. Cole

Album: Cole World: The Sideline Story 

“Mr. Nice Watch” was the current culmination of all of Cole’s hard work and it also marks the only collaboration between the two that made it to a J. Cole album. After releasing Friday Night Lights, Cole’s debut album was finally greenlit by HOV after he struggled to turn in an adequate single. During the last week of production, Cole finally got the Jay verse he always wanted although the song was rushed to meet deadlines. “Mr. Nice Watch” is an ode to the Jay-Z lyric “Ugh, nice watch” from the classic “A Million and One Questions.” 

Wet Dreamz

Top 25 Best J. Cole Songs Of All Time

Produced by: J. Cole

Album: 2014 Forest Hills Drive

The concept for this single off 2014 Forest Hills Drive is brilliant. Cole takes his fans back to his high-school days. Before cell phones and Tinder completely demolished the dating game, nervously written love notes and well thought out poems were the best way to grab a girl’s attention in school. Hormones ablaze, Cole finds himself being invited to his first sexual encounter. He attempts to play it cool, while he internally panics and runs home to learn how to put on a condom while watching porn for instructional purposes. The entire song plays like a nostalgic love story, and it’s hard not to think about your first while listening to “Wet Dreamz.” Cole’s manager would later confirm that the story was fictional after fans expressed discontent with conflicting rhymes about Jermaine’s virginity.

Too Deep For The Intro

Top 25 Best J. Cole Songs Of All Time

Produced by: J. Cole

Album: Friday Night Lights

Cole samples Erykah Badu’s soulful single “Didn’t Cha Know” for this motivational intro track. While Badu questions her path in life, Cole contemplates his own future while revisiting his past. He reminisces about his experiences in college, his upbringing in North Carolina, and even admits that he lost his virginity to a “slutty bitch,” instead of someone he truly loved. It's candid moments like these where Cole’s vulnerability makes him stronger, not weaker. 

Grown Simba

Top 25 Best J. Cole Songs Of All Time

Produced by: J. Cole

Album: The Warm Up

“Grown Simba” opens with an eerie choir that drops into an infectious instrumental with more bounce than hydraulics. A young Cole raps about his aspirations to reach the top of the game, a goal that he would accomplish soon after releasing The Warm Up. Jermaine confidently dismisses drug-dealing, pimping, and balling as distractions to his overall goal to be king. Just like a young Simba, Cole has little patience, and wishes to sit on the throne at the first opportunity he gets. The hunger in his lyrics is apparent, and showcases Cole’s fluidity and intelligence on the mic before he gained mainstream success.

She Knows feat. Amber Coffman and Cults

Top 25 Best J. Cole Songs Of All Time

Produced by: J. Cole

Album: Born Sinner

“She Knows” is the musical form of a paranoid fear that haunts cheating men. Jermaine addresses his own infidelities, and express his fear of his girl’s suspiciousness - the symptoms of a guilty heart. Amber Coffman of the indie rock band Dirty Projectors, loans her vocals to Cole’s confessional banger. She opens the song singing, “Bad things happen to the people you love… but honestly, I’ve never had much sympathy.” Temptation plays a big role on Born Sinner, J. Cole’s sophomore album that vividly displays heavy religious themes. In reality, Cole ditched the allure of sexual promiscuity and married his longtime girlfriend, Melissa Heholt.

Deja Vu

Top 25 Best J. Cole Songs Of All Time

Produced by: Boi-1da, Vinylz, Velous, and J. Cole

Album: 4 Your Eyez Only

Does the instrumental for “Déjà Vu” sound familiar to you? That’s because you probably heard the same sample on Bryson Tiller’s “Exchange." The K.P. and Envy track used for the sample is entitled “Swing My Way,” and “Déjà Vu” producers, Vinylz and Boi-1da, publicly called out Foreign Teck (who produced “Exchange”) for stealing the same beat. Vinylz claimed that he sent Foreign Teck a video of him making the beat, which Teck then rebuilt for Tiller’s hit. Teck, of course, vehemently denies these allegations. Cole decided to keep “Déjà Vu” on 4 Your Eyez Only despite the success of “Exchange” because of the different concepts explored on each song.

Cost Me Alot

Top 25 Best J. Cole Songs Of All Time

Produced by: J. Cole

Album: Friday Night Lights

“Cost Me A Lot” opens with a Billie Holiday sample, an appropriate feature for an instant classic. Cole finds himself conflicted between denouncing material things and the joys of stunting. While articulating this concept is nothing new for Cole, he effectively captures the emotion of conflict on this track and still crafts a catchy single. Jermaine insinuates that rappers love gold chains because of most of their underprivileged upbringings, that has its roots in slavery.

G.O.M.D.

Top 25 Best J. Cole Songs Of All Time

Produced by: J. Cole

Album: 2014 Forest Hills Drive

“G.O.M.D.” is an interesting mix between arrogant braggadocio and genuine concern for the state of love. Cole enters “G.O.M.D.” as a narcissist, claiming that he’s ready to slaughter any competitor, adding that he strikes fear into his peers. By the second verse, Cole breaks down and reveals that he would rather go back to being Jermaine instead of living the life of a famous rapper. Torn between fame and love, Cole questions his childhood, where he never experienced true love until he meets an undisclosed woman. “G.O.M.D.” quickly veers off on a tangent about a tumultuous relationship that seems unrelated, until Cole brings it full circle and highlights ignorance as an enemy to love. The music video features Jermaine playing a house slave that frees the field slaves and stages a rebellion with the help of his slave master’s woman. Cole World.

RIch Niggaz

Top 25 Best J. Cole Songs Of All Time

Produced by: J. Cole

Album: Born Sinner 

“Rich Niggaz” is a track performed by a rich rapper claiming to dislike other rich rappers. Although it sounds counter-productive, Cole has never been a flashy character.  “Money can’t save your soul” proclaims Cole on the closing verse of the track. A melodious harp lays the backdrop for a sordid story of fame and fortune. Cole expresses his skepticism of the industry, and bitterly discredits figures living extravagant lives. While on his lyrical tirade, Cole touches on his mother’s relationship with his step-father, drug abuse, and suicide. It was at this point in Cole’s career where his struggle with balancing his new-found fame and fortune with the things that actually made him happy was most apparent in his lyrics.

Let Nas Down

Top 25 Best J. Cole Songs Of All Time

Produced by: Elite and J. Cole

Album: Born Sinner

When Nas hits you up and does a remix of your song, that’s a life-changing experience. Before the reward of Nas’ approval though, Cole had to deal with the disapproval of the Godson. After Jermaine released “Work Out” as the lead single for his debut album, he received backlash from both critics and fans. No I.D., the producer who mentored Kanye and produced 4:44, was with Nas when he first heard “Work Out,” and passed the OG's disappointed words on to J. Cole. Frustrated and disheartened, Cole used his storytelling skills to paint a picture of a young Jermaine worshipping Nas. As he finds success in the game, Cole finds himself torn between crafting a radio single for his debut or sticking to the backpack rap methods that he had gained success from. The instrumental sounds like something Nas may have rapped over in the mid-90s, which solidifies the aesthetic of the track. “Let Nas Down” spawned a fleeting hip-hop bromance between the two rappers after Nas remixed the track and called it “Made Nas Proud.”

Dead Presidents II

Top 25 Best J. Cole Songs Of All Time

Produced by: Ski Beatz

Album: The Warm Up

This is the track you show non-believers. “Dead Presidents 2” appeared on The Warm Up. It was a follow up to his first attempt at rapping over the Jay-Z classic, which he was told was not up to par. To be honest, Cole’s first attempt at the instrumental was lukewarm, and the sequel absolutely destroys it. Packed with punchlines and metaphors for centuries, Cole used the negative review of his first attempt as a fuel to write the most lyrically potent track on The Warm Up. For decades, rappers have tried their luck on the Jay-Z track that planted the seeds for the epic Nas beef that would occur years later. It’s a trial and a testament for up-and-coming lyricists to murder this instrumental, and Cole does it better than anyone ever has. Possibly even Jay himself...

Villuminati

Top 25 Best J. Cole Songs Of All Time

Produced by: J. Cole

Album: Born Sinner

The opening track of Cole’s sophomore album was a lyrical manifestation of his experiences after becoming a world-wide success. Named after the mythical Illuminati, “Villuminati” finds Jermaine in a darker mood than any of his previous projects. He insists that he’s ready to join the Illuminati, and then trolls critics who believe that he would be included in the cult. When he’s not airing out his grievances concerning his affiliations, Cole spends his time bragging about his success, his lyrical prowess, and his determination. At about the three-quarter mark of “Villuminati,” Cole decides to get spiritual and contemplates his choice of attempting a commercial run, something he likens to selling his soul. He concludes that he’ll never make the choice to appease the radio again, and that his soul has been refreshed. Born Sinner could not have had a more strategically placed and well-constructed intro that displayed the thesis of the album so clearly.

Forbidden Fruit feat. Kendrick Lamar

Top 25 Best J. Cole Songs Of All Time

Produced by: J Cole

Album: Born Sinner

Before Cole was going platinum with no features, he placed his friend and competitor Kendrick Lamar on the chorus of "Forbidden Fruit." Cole samples “Electric Relaxation” by A Tribe Called Quest, and reimagines the title as a Bible reference. Adam’s seduction by Eve, and their fall from grace, is the main theme of "Forbidden Fruit." Cole touches on his own sexual endeavors, as well as taking shots at other celebrities, like Mr. Cee who was caught soliciting sex from a cross-dressing man. Cole also throws a competitive jab at Kanye West, alluding to the fact that his fame had reached the heights of the Chicago MC. That’s boss. 

Premeditated Murder

Top 25 Best J. Cole Songs Of All Time

Produced by: J. Cole

Album: Friday Night Lights 

Solemn and introspective Jermaine shows up for “Premeditated Murder,” a track about change and growth. As Cole starts to get his first taste of fame, he realizes that change is inevitable. He questions himself, and even asks his girl, if the change has a positive or negative effect on their relationship. In the end, Cole confirms he will never return to his broke days, an epiphany we all saw coming from the jump. Seemingly reinvigorated from signing a record deal, Cole drops some of his best bars from the classic mixtape on this track. “Even white women want a nigga, Othello/ I’m balling with nuggets, like fuck it I’m Carmelo/ now the crib got much rooms, Portobello,” may be one of the most clever sets of bars on Friday Night Lights.

Lost Ones

Top 25 Best J. Cole Songs Of All Time

Produced by: J. Cole

Album: Cole World: The Sideline Story

Emotional depth has always been Cole’s strength. The ability to tell stories that are replete with emotional conflict come easy to Jermaine, and “Lost Ones” might be one of the best examples of this fact. In the first verse, Cole raps from the perspective of a man who finds out his girl is pregnant. The man is suggesting an abortion, and claims that he doesn’t want to bring a life into this world without the means for proper support. After he states his case, Cole switches perspectives to the woman. Pregnant and infuriated with her man’s proposition, she compares her lover to his father, a dead-beat daddy. After a poignant second verse, Cole retreats to a position of neutral storytelling for his last verse. Possibly the realest song Cole ever wrote, even the chorus of “Lost Ones” stirs up feelings of distress.

Neighbors

Top 25 Best J. Cole Songs Of All Time

Produced by: J. Cole

Album: 4 Your Eyez Only

The story behind the lyrics for “Neighbors” is riveting, but the instrumental has an equally entertaining story of its own. “Forbidden Fruit,” a track on J. Cole’s Born Sinner album featuring Kendrick Lamar, employs a sample of Ronnie Foster’s “Mystic Brew.” When Ronnie’s sample, that was first made famous by A Tribe Called Quest on "Electric Relaxation,” is slowed down and played in reverse, you get the beat for “Neighbors.” Cole simply spun one of his hits in reverse and made a new song out of it. The lyrics laid down on “Neighbors” weave a true story about J. Cole’s North Carolina studio home entitled “Sheltuh,” where all the Dreamville artist record and vibe out. Located in an affluent neighbourhood, Sheltuh was raided by SWAT team members after reports of drug use, drug manufacturing, and solicitation of drugs were reported. No evidence was found to back up the claims, and Cole surmised that his neighbours were suspicious of young rich Black men moving into their development. So much for integration. 

In the Morning feat. Drake

Top 25 Best J. Cole Songs Of All Time

Produced by: L&X Music

Album: Cole World: The Sideline Story

“In the Morning” is another mixtape track, and a fan-favorite cut for both artists, that ended up making its way onto Cole's debut album. Originally, it was a solo Cole track, recorded before he knew which project it would end up on. Drake became privy to the unreleased song through a mutual friend, and requested a guest verse if Cole ever got around to re-recording the song. As time passed, and both artists gained national attention and respect, Cole decided to contact Drake, and remake the track. Drake excels on records crafted for the females, and “In the Morning” is no exception to the Aubrey effect. Cole aptly matches Drake’s impressive performance though, and the collaboration is flawless. 

Blow Up

Top 25 Best J. Cole Songs Of All Time

Produced by: J. Cole

Album: Friday Night Lights

Before he dropped an album, Cole released two classic mixtapes. Friday Night Lights contains some of the most well-constructed J. Cole tracks of his career, and “Blow Up” was the single that introduced most of his fans to the project, equally, a single that brought new fans onboard. “Blow Up” may have been one of the singles that Cole was crafting for his debut album, that he felt didn’t live up to the standards of being a radio single, although it does bang. Instead, it was used as a single for his third mixtape. Jermaine raps about the struggles of a kid trying to become a man, he tries to deal with adult responsibilities, like credit scores and longevity, while living in poverty; all with dreams of grandeur. Dreams become a reality for Cole when he finally blows up.

No Role Modelz

Top 25 Best J. Cole Songs Of All Time

Produced by: J. Cole and Phoenix Beats

Album: 2014 Forest Hills Drive

“No Role Modelz” features the most addicting instrumental of Cole’s career. The royal horns combined with Cole’s imposing flow creates an anthem for kings. As soon as Cole raps, “First thing’s first, rest in peace Uncle Phil, for real,” he captures the listener's attention with what is possiblythe illest shout-out since Kanye had Beyoncé’s back. Critics and fans have been divided on the overall message of the song, with some claiming that the lyrics are just as shallow as the song’s bridge proclaims Hollywood vixens are. Regardless, creating masterful polarizing music is a trait only the greatest artists exhibit, and this track is an example of Cole’s ability to craft classic records. Plus, Nia Long responded to Cole’s lyrics about her, claiming that “He’s not too young; he just doesn’t know it.” Nice. 

A Tale Of 2 Citiez

Top 25 Best J. Cole Songs Of All Time

Produced by: Vinylz

Album: 2014 Forest Hills Drive

A Tale of Two Cities is a novel by Charles Dickens that takes place during the years leading up to the French Revolution. So, with rebellion in his heart, Cole unleashes a truly rancorous flow over Vinylz haunting instrumental. Themes of poverty, crime, and spirituality are explored with a sense of bravado that is often rare for Cole. What’s the best thing about “A Tale of 2 Cities” though? In the chorus, Cole double references Jay-Z tracks. The first, “A Million and One Questions,” finds a young Sean Carter rhyming “Ugh, nice watch,” in the opening verse. Then, in the Cole and Jay-Z collaboration “Nice Watch,” Jermaine echoes Jay’s disgusted approval of his time-piece. Do double references count as double entendre? They should.

Lights Please

Top 25 Best J. Cole Songs Of All Time

Produced by: J. Cole

Album: Cole World: The Sideline Story

“Lights Please” originally appeared on The Warm Up, one of Cole’s classic mixtapes. After performing “Lights Please” for several different crowds, Cole basically realized he had a hit on his hands. He shopped his new hit around the industry, and when legendary record producer and manager Mark Pitts eventually heard “Lights Please,” he then passed it on to Jay-Z. This was the track that got Cole signed, in sum. Lil’ Jermaine has several classic tracks, no doubt. He’s the voice of a generation and an icon in the hip-hop world. Still, nothing is as sweet as that first hit. The track that separates underground artists from mainstream monsters. Like “Live at the Barbeque” for Nas, or “Scenario” for Busta Rhymes. This is Cole at his purest, juggling the ideas of sex, morality, and politics. All the while, he’s dealing with his own desires and a promiscuous woman that would rather get busy than get woke.

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