J. Cole's 20 Best Songs: Critic's Picks

J. Cole’s catalog is dense. With five albums and three mixtapes under his modestly styled belt, North Carolina’s finest has made a career off of thoroughly pieced together projects and even more thoughtful songs. As he has grown up in the game and evolved as an artist, Cole has expanded his style to touch young people and old hip-hop heads.

When it comes to his best songs, if you ask casual fan, a die-hard or even someone who only knows Cole as the “old” rapper who dissed Lil Pump, everyone is going to have a different answer. Of course, everyone is going to be partial to the type of Cole they connect to most (conscious, vulnerable, dominant, etc.) but there are definitely some clear-cut frontrunners that showcase the best of Cole’s diversity.

Below is a list of the 20 best J. Cole songs ranked.

20. J. Cole - "BRACKETS"

KOD had a lot of important messages but perhaps none more important than on “BRACKETS.” The comedic Richard Pryor intro ushers in Cole’s smooth singing and delicate opening verse while the second verse hammers home the reality of taxes. Cole breaks down the issues he sees in the current American taxation system and how it can commence a domino effect of ghettoization. Not to mention the cleverest line on the entire album appears on this show-stopping second verse: “One thing about the men that's controlling the pen/That write history, they always seem to white-out they sins.”

19. J. Cole - "No Role Modelz" 

There are many J. Cole fans that claim 2014 Forest Hills Drive is his best album to date thanks to the plethora of bangers on his heralded project. One of those outright sing-alongs is “No Role Modelz.” The track hones in on the dichotomy between men and women who grew up without role models. It’s one of Cole’s most balanced songs with strong lyrics alluding to an overarching message while at the same time being an infectiously catchy, bass-heavy, pulsing synth smash hit.

18. J. Cole - "Runaway"

What J. Cole has done so well since he picked up a microphone was tell stories that young people can relate to. “Runaway” is perhaps one of Cole’s most relevant deep cuts that asks the age old question; dive into a committed relationship or continue “running through b-----s”? The specific insight he provides into his own back-and-forth psyche sheds light on the mental mayhem that many men and women deal with when faced with the same love-or-lust choice. Of course, Cole doesn’t choose a side, leaving listeners with more introspective questions than answers.

17. J. Cole - "Fire Squad"

One of Cole’s more screwfaced cuts was birthed the through the creation of “Fire Squad.” For starters, Cole quite literally lines up his competition and guns them down. He bobs and weaves through a menacing beat he produced with Vinylz which opens with “Ain't a way around it no more, I am the greatest.” It’s a memorable instance not only on the album but in Cole’s career where he tells fans, critics and his contemporaries that he’s the best. Point blank, period. He also heat checks white rappers in the game that are allegedly “stealing the sound.”

16. J. Cole - "Can I Live"

The Warm Up was the most contributory project in J. Cole’s career with plenty of tracks leading him to become a versatile artist and, of course, his Roc Nation record deal. “Can I Live” drags listeners through a rollercoaster story of Cole’s come-up circumstances, which get bookended by a loose recreation of the JAY-Z song of the same title. It’s this song in particular that sharpened Cole’s pen as a long-form storyteller.

15. J. Cole - "Three Wishes"

Cole drops an in-depth hypothetical track that force listeners to think what they would do if they were in that same situation. Instead of opting for riches and success in the rap game, he details his desire for his friend’s freedom, help for his friend's addicted mother and for his own mother to engage in healthier romantic relationships. This song is one of the first instances where listeners learn that Cole’s motives for success aren’t as materialistic as one would assume.

14. J. Cole - "Let Nas Down" 

One of Cole’s most unique storytelling tracks recounts the story of how his debut album’s single “Work Out” ended up letting Nas down. Cole details his struggle with finding a marketable lead single for The Sideline Story and all the while finding out the selected pop-driven track disappointed Nas, obviously an idol of his. What makes this cut so important is the recognition of idol adoration and the hunt for their approval. Not to mention the duality between making something Nas would approve of and something the “radio could jam.” Plus, Nas released a remix titled “Made Nas Proud” which brings the whole story happily full circle.

13. J. Cole - "1985 (Intro to 'The Fall Off')"

The outro to Cole’s KOD album was what sparked most of the conversations surrounding the project. In a pseudo-response to disses made by the likes of Lil Pump, Cole put his thoughts about hip-hop’s generational gap on wax and addresses some his younger peers. He sternly gives the new generation a rapping-to with some backhanded advice sprinkled in. He wraps up the skillfully patronizing track by declaring his own prominence in the game, claiming: “I'll be around forever 'cause my skills is tip-top/To any amateur n----s that wanna get rocked/Just remember what I told you when your shit flop/In five years you gon' be on Love & Hip-Hop.”

12. "Power Trip" Featuring Miguel

In many ways, “Power Trip” was the smash hit Cole had always dreamed have making simply because he made it on his own creative terms. He had gotten the “debut single” monkey off his back on The Sideline Story and could take his time with Born Sinner’s lead single. His inventive production and standout assist from Miguel on the chorus made “Power Trip” a very re-listenable hit that anchored his sophomore offering. We also got a taste of Cole’s singing voice that would obviously become a staple in his coming projects.

11. J. Cole - "Neighbors" 

4 Your Eyez Only got hit with criticism of monotony but “Neighbors” was widely considered the project’s most replayable song thanks to reversed chords from “Forbidden Fruit,” knocking 808s and snappy snares. While the beat was trap oriented and enthusiastically contemporary, Cole got into his good old-fashioned storytelling bag to detail the police raid on his North Carolina home. His neighbors suspected him and his friends of running a drug dealing operation out of their house which consequently conjured a SWAT raid. The police obviously found nothing and the song bangs nonetheless.  

10. J. Cole - "Grown Simba"

From a technical standpoint, “Grown Simba” is one of Cole’s best displays of rapping. During the wordplay galore, Cole rattles off the rounds of bars regarding his lust for rap game success and desiring to be the proverbial “king.” An example of his writing prowess comes in the second verse as he raps “Lord, please let my problems disappear like Ron Mercer/I’m a star; Converses/Conversin' with them girls with them curves like cursive.”

9. J. Cole - "Rise & Shine" 

Despite the album’s formulaic hits being met with criticism, The Sideline Story was filled with introspective, rap-game conquistador deep cuts that satisfied Cole’s core fanbase. One of the more ambitious ones was “Rise and Shine.” After an excerpt from a JAY-Z interview on why he signed a young Jermaine, Cole gets right to work with standout rapid-fire raps. It’s one of the few instances where Cole walks the line between conscious and cocky, showing a stern desire for dominance while mixing in awareness of his vulnerabilities.

8. J. Cole - "Farewell"

The closing song on Cole’s Friday Night Lights mixtape hauntingly reflects on how he will be remembered when he’s gone. Questions like “Will they say I was a sinner or pretend I was a saint?” are riddled throughout the song with no conclusion in sight. Cole’s stream on questioning consciousness is what has made his music so relatable with young people who also ponder these types of deep-thinking problems. He also brings it all back to his beginnings and is reminded to remember where he came from and why he started in the first place.

7. J. Cole - "Love Yourz" 

“Love Yourz” could very well double as three minute therapy session for those in desperate need of some self-assurance. Over a simple piano beat, Jermaine urges listeners to love their own lives noting that the flashy lifestyle isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. He repeatedly states that there is “no such thing as a life that’s better than yours” which serves as a simple reminder for those ashamed of their current situation.

The genius of this track is just how aware J. Cole is about himself, his peers, his fans and the average human being. He closes this tear-evoking track with a humble reminder: “Always gon' be a whip that's better than the one you got/Always gon' be some clothes that's fresher than the ones you rock/Always gon' be a bitch that's badder out there on the tours/But you ain't never gon' be happy 'til you love yours.”

6. J. Cole - "Dollar and a Dream II"

The beauty of “Dolla and a Dream II” is its simplicity and easy-going rhythm that highlight Cole’s ability as a storyteller. Cole raps about his hopes, dreams and pending student debt – all of which seem so unassuming given how far he’s come since having just that dollar and a dream. On verse three he even talks to a girl named Sallie who helped him through difficult financial times. “Ay Sallie, I know I ain't been answering your calls/But shit, let me explain- it's because times been hard/Been running around trying find a job.” It highlights Cole’s bravery to be vulnerable as a young rapper on the come up.

5. J. Cole - "Before I'm Gone" 

As soon as you hear rolling drumlines on a J. Cole song, you know he’s about to pour his heart out. “Before I’m Gone” combines sweet strings and those iconic drums to usher in Cole’s thoughts and feelings on struggles in Fayetteville. Lines like “We tired of only having just a piece/And fuck policing, they killing n----s what's the reason/His daughter starving and she fucking freezing/So no wonder why he fucking squeezing” are eye opening and shed light on the realities facing small town America. The chorus dedicates the song to the listeners and the city, two entities that made him the artist he is today.  

4. J. Cole - “Crooked Smile” Featuring TLC

In an age of social media gratification and a focus on perceived perfection, Cole cuts the cycle with the ever empowering “Crooked Smile.” Featuring TLC on the hook, Cole talks about his own insecurities and why he embraces them despite not being “perfect.” 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” attempts to let women know that imperfections should be embraced, not changed, and what really matters is what’s on the inside. It’s a message as old as time but Cole manages to get it across without sounding preachy.

3. J. Cole - "Lost Ones"

What will go down as one of the best dialogue rap songs of all time is J. Cole’s “Lost Ones.” The song tackles the serious issue of young adult pregnancy. Cole kicks the song off from the perspective of a man and then goes into the woman’s -- both sides presenting their thoughts, feelings and serious concerns about the pregnancy. While the man’s side claims: “Where the hell we gon' live? Where am I gon' get that money?/I refuse to bring my boy or my girl in this world/When I ain't got shit to give 'em,” the woman says “Now I'm pregnant, you don't wanna get involved, mothafucka?/Tryna take away a life—is you God, mothafucka?”

It’s the perfect recreation of an actual conversation that many young people across the world have had. Pulling from personal experience, once again, Cole captures the real-life lens of young people.

2. J. Cole - "4 Your Eyez Only"

The outro and title track from Cole’s 4 Your Eyez Only runs nearly nine-minutes long and is the crown jewel of his storytelling cuts. The song starts as a message to his newborn daughter and his slain friend’s daughter. From reciting tragedies in their hometown to the woes of raising children poor and single, Cole takes listeners through a rollercoaster story that plays out more like a movie than a song -- all while wrapping up an entire album dedicated to that late friend.

“Nah, your daddy was a real n---a, not 'cause he was hard/Not because he lived a life of crime and sat behind some bars/Not because he screamed, "Fuck the law"/Although that was true/Your daddy was a real n---a cause he loved you” sums up the grim posthumous love letter from which this song derives. After listening to this song, the entire narrative on 4 Your Eyez Only becomes clear and while devoted to his friend, shows parallels to his own life.

1. J. Cole - "Lights Please"

Not only is “Lights Please” a wonderfully produced, executed and astutely rapped song off of The Warm Up but it’s the song that propelled Cole to superstardom. Cole raps about what appears to be unsavory women that he has encountered throughout his rise to fame, and while this is true, it also doubles as a metaphor for the rap game. On top of the strong verses that make this hip-hop personification possible, the catchy chorus is smooth and decadent when laid over the softly sampled soul track. From its resilient replay value to what it means to Jermaine Cole himself, “Lights Please” will go down as his best yet.