By Nick Sligh
In honor of the upcoming release of “The Off-Season,” J. Cole’s 6th studio album, I decided to come up with my list of my top fifteen J. Cole songs. This list includes everything from loose singles in the mixtape era to the songs from more recent studio albums. Narrowing down to only fifteen songs was difficult enough, and the list is simply in alphabetical order (rather than being listed by ranked preference). Also, this list is strictly limited to songs coming directly from a Cole album or single, so no collaboration projects (like the Revenge of the Dreamers series) are considered.
On an album full of wide-ranging emotions, “03’ Adolescence” paints Cole’s bleak struggles with a captivating tenacity. 2003 was a critical year for Cole’s growth: He graduated high school in Fayetteville, N.C. and moved to New York City to attend St. John’s University. In the big city, Jermaine grappled with low confidence and self-esteem issues, trying to find a place in a genre and culture that he was feeling his style might not perfectly fit with. Two fantastic and incredibly impassioned verses are both followed by an equally emotionally resonant chorus, all resulting in one of Cole’s most personal and exceptional songs.
“The mental state of a young black genius conflicted.” It’s hard to find a song with more emotionally potent deliveries than this classic from Cole’s early discography. “2Face” deals with J. Cole’s struggle between his conscience and falling victim to materialism and temptations, with intense verses and a soulful chorus all over a fantastic production selection. Cole has always been effortless with his expression of mental struggles, and “2Face” is one of the best examples of internal conflict being vocalized in a tremendous fashion.
The outro to his fourth studio album is a great song on its own, but especially in the context of the concept album, it is nearly flawless in masterfully fulfilling its purpose. “4 Your Eyez Only” narrates the story of a young man who has now passed away and is hoping for his story of his life to be passed along to his daughter. Based on a real story about a friend of Cole’s, the actual name of the character is not used for privacy reasons, but the story remains ever-emotionally gripping. A rare four verse song, no word is wasted over the relaxed and jazzy production, and the narrative of the album is wrapped up in marvelous fashion.
Though other songs on “Cole World: The Sideline Story” like “Lights Please” and “Lost Ones” often get more praise for their narrative prowess, the strongest song on the album comes by way of its outro, “Breakdown.” The flute-heavy jazz sample meshes perfectly with Cole’s emotional verses about the absence of his father in his life. “I just shed tears homie, and I ain’t too proud to admit it / Just seen my father for the first time in a minute / And when I say a minute I mean years man / Damn, a whale could have swam in them tears fam / Cause as I left em’ I reflected on my younger days / When it was just me and my brother and my mother played father / ‘cause no other man bothered, not even my biological / it never seemed logical, but I accepted it ’cause I ain’t know no better.”
The best song on his debut mixtape “The Come Up,” “Can’t Cry” again sees Cole in a reflective and emotional state. There’s obviously a theme here by now in my list, as Cole often does some of his best work when heavily sentimental and contemplative. The powerful track deals with Cole’s growing into a man and the realization of many of the inevitable evils of the world, ranging from racial inequality to police brutality to cyclical poverty.
Potentially my favorite song on this list, and one of my favorite songs of all time, “Cole Summer” has no flaws. To start with the sample, the loop from Lauryn Hill and D’Angelo’s “Nothing Even Matters” (that J. Cole hilariously admits was never actually cleared) is heavenly, and lays a production foundation that could only lead to a great song. The classic track preceded Cole’s sophomore album “Born Sinner,” and gave an amusing but emotional set of verses dealing with insecurity, doubt and inspiration. Despite approaching fame, Cole still deals with the fear of failing in music, and not being able to provide for himself and his mother like he wants to: “I finally put my Momma in that E class, n**** / And I told her quit her job, but hold your horses / If my next album flops it’s back to the post office, both of us.”
“Get Free ColeWorld” ft. Major Lazer
A year after “Cole World: The Sideline Story” released, J. Cole released the Major Lazer-produced single touching on topics like the role of race in relationships and the 2012 presidential election. Two very well-written verses are combined with a great chorus from Amber Coffman and then closed out with a fitting 2Pac snippet, all over Major Lazer’s terrific production.
Implementing an epic sample of David Ruffin’s “The Double Cross” right away, “Grew Up Fast” sees Cole rapping prolifically about his rapid ascension to superstardom, delivering a lighthearted, hilarious, feel-good and reminiscent braggadocio-infused story. The blend of nostalgia and comedy is perfectly executed, with Cole rapping at his peak and the production being practically flawless.