There are very few artists who have managed to carve out a distinct lane in hip-hop the way J. Cole has. After all, the reclusive rapper has unofficially coined the term “platinum with no features” after his 2014 effort, Forest Hills Drive, received platinum certification and he went on to earn another platinum plaque for 4 Your Eyez Only in 2016 with, yes, no features whatsoever.
After laying low on the music front for much of 2017, J. Cole returned on Tuesday (Apr. 16) and posted a cryptic image on his socials asking fans to attend a secret show in NYC. Naturally, fans flocked to the mysterious location and were in for a surprise when Cole took the stage to preview a new project for fans. Shortly after the event, Cole made the announcement fans have been patiently waiting for: “New album. KOD 4/20.”
That’s right, Cole was gearing up to unveil his fifth studio album, KOD, which dropped on Friday morning (Apr. 20). For years, Cole has been lauded for his masterful pen game, but his oft-overlooked beat-making skills have become an integral part of his sonic identity as he deftly blends lush, soulful elements with rhythmic head-bobbing hip-hop sounds. While he’s produced the majority of his own records, Cole has also extended his production skills to a heap of his rap counterparts, including Kendrick Lamar to Wale and Pusha T.
Below, Billboard takes a look back at J. Cole’s best beats ahead the just-released KOD.
Kendrick Lamar, “Hii Power”
The long-rumored Kendrick Lamar/J. Cole joint project may never see the light of day but at least there is “Hii Power” and crop of other collaborations between the two to hold on to. “Hii Power” marked the first collaboration between K. Dot and Cole and was featured on Lamar’s debut album, Section 80. Cole’s multi-layered beat featured a classic boom-bap drum pattern and flickering synths that complimented Lamar’s lyrical attack.
Wale, “Bad Girl’s Club”
Wale and J. Cole trade slick rhymes about a woman who they see as a “perfect 10” over the booming, drum-laden beat with colorful keys that make an appearance mid-way through the cut, just in time for Cole to flex his versatile flow.
Fabolous, “Louis Vuitton”
In the first few seconds of “Louis Vuitton,” Cole’s beat goes from a soulful, cinematic melody to an uptempo groove and back to the soulful piano keys from the beginning, this time with a bit more drums driving behind Cole’s husky voice. Cole and Fabolous denounce gold-digging women who are only concerned with designer labels and expensive gourmet meals on the track.
J. Cole, “Power Trip”
Cole and Miguel reunite on “Power Trip” as Cole raps about being so deeply in love that he’s been singing love songs a lot lately. The silky, brooding melody is beefed up by thumping drum kicks and jazzy flutes courtesy of a Hubert Laws sample.
J. Cole, “Forbidden Fruit”/“Neighbors”
What is old becomes new again when it comes to J. Cole and his beat-making skills. During a tour stop on his 4 Your Eyez Only Tour, Cole revealed to the crowd that the beat for “Neighbors” is actually just his earlier cut “Forbidden Fruit” reversed. On “Forbidden Fruit,” Cole mixes snappy drums with jazz guitar riffs from Ronnie Foster’s “Mystic Brew.” However, on “Neighbors,” the jazz-infused elements of “Forbidden Fruit” is stripped away and replaced with woozy synths and drums to give it a more modern bounce.
J. Cole, “Mr. Nice Watch”
Cole earned bragging rights from early in his career after signing with JAY-Z’s Roc Nation and nabbing a Hov feature on his debut album on “Mr. Nice Watch.” The glitchy, electronic beat sounds like it was plucked right out of an arcade game. The usual self-effacing Cole takes a moment to boast about his success, dishing out lines like, “Have you seen my shows? Have you seen my hoes?/If I wasn’t hot, would they be so thick?”
Pusha T recruited an all-star team for his 2016 track “M.P.A” and tapped his G.O.O.D Music head honcho Kanye West and J. Cole to lay down the production. Pusha raps about the three things most rappers find appealing and the negative effects money, pu**y and alcohol can have on the emotive track over shimmering keys, a rattling tambourine and The-Dream’s soft coos playing in the background.
“It Only Gets Better” is laced with a driving bass line and skittering drums that create the perfect sound bed for Marsha Ambrosius’ heavenly warble and Talib Kweli’s optimistic rhymes to glide over.