If you were trying to get someone into Cole — or just try to jog their memory as to what they might already know him from — what song would you mention? The irresistible early radio staple “Can’t Get Enough”? The jaw-dropping Born Sinner crossover “Power Trip”? The Spotify-conquering 2014 Forest Hills Drive favorite “No Role Modelz”? Or something totally different?
To help answer this question, we asked six Billboard staffers to rep for their favorite J. Cole single. Read their personal picks below, and of course, look out for Cole’s fifth album KOD., dropping at midnight tonight (Apr. 19).
Christine Werthman: “Who Dat” (2010)
With three successful mixtapes and a JAY-Z cosign to his name, J. Cole was primed to take the rap world by storm in 2010. And then he dropped “Who Dat,” a nearly four-minute, horn-led track that, at the time, seemed to derail the then-25-year-old’s ride to the top. The song was intended to be the lead single for his debut album on Roc Nation, but after a lackluster fan reception (“This is dripping with weaksauce,” wrote one RapRadar commenter that April) and chart performance (it peaked at No. 93 on the Billboard Hot 100), the song didn’t even make it onto the final tracklist of Cole World: The Sideline Story, which arrived almost a year and a half later.
Consider it the album’s loss. Produced by Cole and Elite, “Who Dat” bops along to a formidable brass sample from New Hope’s 1972 song “Godofallofus,” as Cole comes for his nonbelievers. “Clown told me, ‘Ain’t you Roc? But where the fuck your chain at?’/Guess it’s something like your girl, n—a it ain’t came yet,” he says, putting the focus on his wordplay instead of trying to get by on name — and chain — alone. If the more recent, somber, contemplative Cole offerings make your eyes glaze over a little (~slowly raises hand~), go back and listen to “Who Dat” and remember a time when J. Cole had no trouble having fun.
Carl Lamarre: “Can’t Get Enough” (2011)
After struggling to gain traction with his 2010 single “Who Dat,” Cole World began finding his rhythm in the booth. First, he gained momentum with “Work Out,” which peaked at No. 13 on the Hot 100 and went double-Platinum. Then, he unleashed his Trey Songz-assisted “Can’t Get Enough.”
On the latter, he sliced through the island-tinged beat (courtesy of an inspired Balla Et Ses Balladins lift) with reckless abandon. With a barrage of punchlines that would make your favorite MCs blush (including “I’m from the Ville, where they bang for the money/ And carry fo’-fives, like change for a twenty” and hip-hop’s dirtiest Alex Ovechkin namedrop), Cole undoubtedly left an indelible mark on this club banger. While the rapper was busy sautéing the beat with his fiery bars, Trey Songz dished out a noteworthy assist on the chorus, making the record a radio standout for Jermaine from 2011 well into 2012. The formidable duo proved to be an enduring success, as “Can’t Get Enough” landed the Roc Nation MC another platinum plaque for his collection in 2016.
Bianca Gracie: “Power Trip” (2013)
It’s always magic whenever J. Cole and Miguel link up, and their second collaboration — 2013’s “Power Trip,” following their connection on the latter’s “All I Want Is You” debut single — remains their best one to date. It was a risky move for Cole to release such a romantic lead single for Born Sinner, but it was refreshing to hear him cater to the ladies. The song has a nostalgic appeal that instantly makes you feel warm as soon as the sample (from jazz artist Hubert Laws’ “No More”) kicks in. Cole sincerely gushes about how much he loves his girl in a way that will remind you of the person who first stole your heart, while Miguel anchors the rapper’s emotions with his sensual vocals.
The coolest part of the song is actually its double meaning, which the rapper has mastered over the years. On the surface, “Power Trip” is an ode to Cole’s lady, but it is also a reference to his undying love for hip-hop, where he’s constantly up all night creating music. It also shows the rapper’s knack for continuity and referencing his own songs. For this one, he mentions “Dreams” — a fan favorite from his 2009 mixtape The Warm Up, presumably about the same woman from “Power Trip.” Along with displaying his lyrical versatility, the track flexes the rapper’s skills behind the decks: J. Cole is a powerhouse producer (and record exec) who solely helmed this single and many others, further proving that he is a hip-hop triple threat.
Steven J. Horowitz: “Forbidden Fruit” (2013)
It’s ambitious to try to mine from Ronnie Foster’s “Mystic Brew” as a sample, particularly when it’s been etched in the history books as essentially belonging to A Tribe Called Quest’s “Electric Relaxation.” But this cut off of 2013’s Born Sinner works, for several reasons. Cole is an underappreciated producer, and here, he shines, stripping back the source to a plucked bass line, flits of guitar, intermittent vibraphones and delicate percussion. And beyond that, Cole and guest rapper Kendrick Lamar — who once teased a joint mixtape that never materialized — sound relaxed without losing any of their bite. It’s a creative meeting of the minds that shows promise for a potentially game-changing project that still may never see the light of day.
Tatiana Cirisano: “No Role Modelz” (2015)
Like many classic hip-hop LPs, J. Cole’s Grammy-nominated 2014 Forest Hills Drive album is a redemption story, looking back on the rapper’s humble start in North Carolina in a year he, by then an established rapper, triumphantly purchased the childhood home reflected in the album’s title. But that rags-to-riches narrative takes an honest turn in “No Role Modelz.” Here, the rapper reveals his disappointment with Hollywood life, noting “out-of-touch-with-reality” peers and a lack of industry exemplars in furious rhymes and a hook that pays homage to Project Pat’s 2001 single “Don’t Save Her.”
Admittedly, J. Cole deserves flak for directing his tirade largely against women; “All I’m left with is hoes from reality shows,” reads one cringeworthy lyric. But with its royal-sounding horns, elegant beat and memorable intro shout-out to The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air — and forever-unexpected midway drop of a George W. Bush audio foible — the track remains a pump-up youth anthem about demanding better from the world.
Andrew Unterberger: “Love Yourz” (2016)
There might not be a better moment at explaining J. Cole’s wide-ranging appeal than the final sequence of his Forest Hills Drive HBO special — when the cell phones and lighters come up, and tens of thousands of kids sing along as Cole, sitting on his rooftop set, preaches over unapologetically sentimental piano: “No such thing as a life that’s better than yours.” It’s a moment of stunning grandeur and humility, and as the credits roll on screen over a montage of behind-the-scenes Cole snapshots — and that Sunday-morning groove continues to raise the blinds on whatever darkness you’re currently battling — it’s hard not to have your heart smile at least a little bit for the Fayetteville kid made good.
Of course, there’s a little irony, if not downright hypocrisy, in Cole opining that “being broke was better” in the midst of one of sure to be many national tours grossing in the tens of millions. Cole even acknowledges that dissonance himself — offering “I don’t mean that phrase with no disrespect/ To all my n—as out there living in debt” — but still doubles down, insisting “I mean this shit sincerely” and concluding, “You ain’t never gon’ be happy till you love yours.” Ultimately, though, it’s not as important whether Cole believes it as it is that his legions of fans do — many of whom have been waiting forever for a superstar they could picture being themselves, to tell them that they’re the ones who really have it made.