J. Cole is the stage name of rapper Jermaine Cole, whose introspective rap compositions have captivated audiences around the world. Since the release of his first album in 2011, he has dived deep into reflections on life. These top 25 tracks show his range in a way that is truly unique.
1. Fire Squad
The 2014 song Fire Squad made waves for its commentary on racial appropriation in the music industry—in particular, calling out several musicians and rappers by name. J. Cole points out that white musicians have been usurping the accolades from Black musicians for decades. He says that this trend is continuing with white rappers such as Iggy Azalea and Macklemore displacing talented rappers of color.
2. Power Trip
The 2013 song Power Trip came out just before Valentine’s Day, which was appropriate. The track is a dual-themed love song about J. Cole’s love for a woman and his love for hip hop and the music industry.
The track, which featured the singer Miguel, is considered a continuation of the song Dreams from the rapper’s mixtape. It is the story of his obsession with a woman and how he dreams of killing her boyfriend to have her for himself.
3. No Role Modelz
The 2014 track No Role Modelz has quickly become one of J. Cole’s most popular songs. The track climbed to number 36 on the Billboard Hot 100. The crude song is a reflection on a sexual fling who is shallow and aimless, and the rapper suspects she might be after him for his money. It gradually progresses into a rant about how shallow L.A. women who have no substance and how he believes it’s because they grew up without any good role models.
It might come across like a misogynistic tirade if he didn’t realize that he was just the same—growing up without anyone to emulate and now indulging in a meaningless but gratifying relationship.
The track 1985 is J. Cole’s reflection back on his life, styled in part as a warning to aspiring rappers who don’t know the dangers of the music industry. It was interpreted as a diss to rappers such as Lil Pump and 6ix9ine, with whom he had been publicly feuding. Lil Pump had released a song entitled Fuck J. Cole, but J. Cole chose to be high-handed in response. In 1985, he criticized the other rapper’s violent and pointless actions, taking the role of a musician who is older and wiser.
5. Crooked Smile
J. Cole’s 2013 track Crooked Smile is one of his best-known songs. This may be in part due to its sampling of No One’s Gonna Love You by Jennifer Hudson and his collaboration with TLC, who sang backup on the track.
The song climbed to number 27 on the Hot 100 chart, making it one of his most successful tracks to date. It is about body acceptance, insecurity, and the meaning of true beauty.
6. In The Morning
Sexual bragging is a standard of hip hop, so we shouldn’t be surprised that J. Cole has indulged in it, too. The 2010 track featured on his mixtape Friday Night Lights and was a collaboration with Drake—a massive achievement for the then-up-and-coming rapper.
In The Morning is essentially a song inviting a hookup to wake up with the sun and go for a second round.
7. p r i d e . i s . t h e . d e v i l
In 2021, J. Cole teamed up with Lil Baby to record p r i d e . i s . t h e . d e v i l. The song, released on his sixth studio album, was a massive success, hitting the charts at number seven.
It was later nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Melodic Rap Performance. The track, which samples Can’t Decide by Aminé, was praised for vocal performances by both musicians.
8. 4 Your Eyez Only
The song 4 Your Eyez Only was the title single for J. Cole’s fourth studio album, a concept one telling the story of a man who was caught in a dissolute world. The lead track is revealed to be a letter written to the man’s daughter, left after his violent death.
He later shared that the album told the story of a real-life friend whom he had known when he was younger; though they were involved in the same activities, their paths diverged when the rapper was able to escape that world and his friend was not.
Villuminati was released at a time when J. Cole’s success was growing at an alarming rate. With the release of his album Born Sinner, the rapper felt increasing pressure to improve upon his past work.
This inspired this song, a reflection on his divided nature and desires—on one hand, he is determined to remain true to his artistic ideals, but on the other, he feels pressured to make music that appeals to the masses.
10. She Knows
She Knows was a track released on J. Cole’s second album, Born Sinner, which was released in 2013. The song samples Bad Things by Cults. In it, he reflects on sexual infidelities and wonders if his girlfriend is aware of them. Though he wants to stop, he finds himself returning to cheating again and again; ultimately, he realizes that his girlfriend must know what is going on, as he can’t have been able to hide it all this time.
11. MIDDLE CHILD
A newer gem in J. Cole’s discography, MIDDLE CHILD is a complex reflection on sibling dynamics in relation to the hip hop industry. He is known for writing songs that are metaphors, contrasting universal life experiences with his experiences as a rapper.
In the case of this track, he reflects on becoming a rapper in the 2000s, an era that was caught between the first age of hip hop and the new era—making him the “middle child” of rap.
12. Can’t Get Enough
J. Cole caught the world’s attention with the release of his debut album, Cole World: The Sideline Story, in 2011. The album featured Can’t Get Enough, which climbed to number seven on the R&B charts.
He often samples lesser-known artists on his tracks, a trend he started from the beginning; this samples the song Paulette from the Guinean group Balla Et Ses Balladins.
13. Lights Please
Lights Please was one of J. Cole’s earliest hits, having been released on his second mixtape in 2009. The song ended up being a pivotal one in his career, as it caught the attention of rapper Jay-Z and eventually got him a record deal with Roc Nation. He has said this is one of the most important tracks in his professional life.
14. Nobody’s Perfect
Nobody’s Perfect was the final single on J. Cole’s debut studio album, released in 2011. The song was a collaboration with the legendary hip hop artist Missy Elliott, who provided vocals. It may have been her influence that helped gain the world’s attention, as this track charted on both the R&B charts and the Billboard Hot 100.
15. False Prophets
J. Cole has never glamorized life in the spotlight, but 2016’s False Prophets might be the most direct indictment of the celebrity life he has ever given. It criticized rappers who jump on every new music fad and those who use ghostwriters.
The song generated controversy, with fans interpreting that he was calling out other rappers such as Drake, Kanye West, and Wale.
16. Work Out
J. Cole released Work Out on his debut album in 2011. The song was a success and peaked at number 85 on the Billboard Hot 100.
However, rapper Nas publicly criticized it, leading to him composing the track, Let Nas Down. He later said he didn’t care for the song himself, lending an odd contrast between the track’s success and the industry’s vocal response to it.
17. Lost Ones
Lost Ones may be one of the deepest, most emotional, and most philosophical songs of J. Cole’s career. The 2011 track tells the story of a couple facing an unexpected pregnancy, with each verse sharing each person’s perspective followed by a third narrative verse.
The song was widely praised for its skillful grappling with the deep topic, with some critics calling it an “artistic masterpiece.” The rapper himself has said that it’s one of his favorite tracks.
18. Born Sinner
Born Sinner was the lead single on J. Cole’s 2013 album of the same name. The song is a reflection back on his life, including the mistakes that he has made. However, he recognizes that he can always improve and credits his music career for helping him become a better person. It was a collaboration with singer James Fauntleroy, who sang the track’s recognizable hook.
19. Love Yourz
J. Cole released Love Yourz on his album, 2014 Forest Hills Drive. The track was a massive success, climbing to number 41 on the US R&B charts and earning a platinum certification.
It completes the theme of the album, a reflection back on his life’s journey, and brings it into the present. In it, he ponders a life of fame and wealth and realizes that it is worth much less than the love of those who are close to him.
J. Cole has never shied away from controversy, and his 2014 single G.O.M.D. is the perfect example of that. The song climbed to number 34 on the R&B charts but received mixed reviews from critics.
It is easy to understand the surface meaning as a commentary on racism—the music video features him as a 19th-century house slave leading a rebellion on a plantation—but the rapper has said that at its core, it is a rallying cry for African Americans to unite in their fight for equality.
Just before the release of the album 2014 Forest Hills Drive, Apparently replaced G.O.M.D. as the lead single. The song garnered plenty of attention, placing high on both the R&B charts and the Billboard Hot 100. As with the rest of the album, it is a reflection on past mistakes, making amends, and going forward with a purpose. The track received a Grammy Award nomination for Best Rap Performance.
22. Let Nas Down
One of J. Cole’s biggest idols was the rapper Nas, whom he followed even as a child. After the release of his song Work Out, his manager happened to tell him that Nas himself said that he hated it.
There might be nothing more discouraging than hearing that from your idol. Thankfully, he didn’t let it stop him. Instead, he composed the hit track Let Nas Down in honor of the rapper. This time, Nas loved the song and thanked him for the honor.
23. 3 Wishes
The track 3 Wishes was released on the 2017 album, Truly Yours. In the song, J. Cole imagines what he would do if he was granted three wishes—something we’ve all done ourselves!
He decides that, instead of wealth, fame, or fortune, he would use his wishes to better the lives of three people he loves. He wishes that his mother would be safe from abuse, that the mother of his friend would be lifted out of poverty, and that his friend would be freed from prison.
24. Dollar And a Dream II
Dollar And A Dream II is a follow-up to a song released in 2007. Released in 2009, the song looks back on what J. Cole wanted when he was newly out of college and beginning to pursue his career. At the time, he had almost nothing to his name—meaning he was powered, literally, by a dollar and a dream.
25. Heaven’s EP
J. Cole’s latest work, released in 2022, shows the rapper going in a new direction as he contemplates aging in the music industry, doubting himself, and comparing his work to other rappers. The song samples Pipe Down by Drake, with whom he has collaborated in the past.
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