Jermaine Cole, AKA J. Cole, is a living legend. From grinding to get a record deal to being one of the best-selling artists of his generation, he’s seen it all. His early mixtapes helped pave the way for his future success, and the backing of Jay-Z’s Roc Nation helped give him legitimacy in the highly competitive industry. This month, his major-label debut LP, Cole World: The Sideline Story, turns ten years old. How has his music progressed? Similar to what I did with Drake and Kendrick Lamar, here’s my ten-year retrospective on J. Cole.
6) Cole World: The Sideline Story (2011)
Cole’s first album is easily his weakest. It’s got a collection of interesting features from Trey Songz, Drake, Jay-Z, and Missy Elliott, but they don’t seem to collectively match the brand he was seeking to establish. It felt like a weird mixture of pop-rap and hardcore with little sonic cohesion. That being said, it’s not a bad album, just lacking polish like most debuts.
“Dollar And A Dream III” tugs at my heartstrings for sampling music from Kingdom Hearts II. But it’s also a strong intro track for Cole’s debut album. While it’s kind of outside of his preferred aesthetic, “Can’t Get Enough” has solid production and a decent Trey Songz feature at the height of his stardom. “In The Morning” is an older track, but it works well for this project. “Lost Ones” is probably the best track on the album, detailing a couple’s dilemma as they contemplate having an abortion. On the flip side, “Work Out” has not aged well at all.
Best Tracks: “Can’t Get Enough,” “In The Morning,” “Lost Ones”
5) Born Sinner (2013)
Born Sinner wasn’t a bad album, but I think it hasn’t really aged as well as it could have. The bars are there, but the features feel gimmicky at this point in Cole’s career, and while the production isn’t as solid, it was an improvement over Sideline Story. The mixing could have been a little more polished, though.
“Villuminati” didn’t age well, but “Land of the Snakes” still hits hard. “Crooked Smile” is still a feel-good song, but definitely dated by the TLC feature. “Forbidden Fruit” (featuring Kendrick Lamar) is still a standout track, from the “Mystic Brew” sample to the slick rapping from our star artist. “Power Trip” (featuring Miguel) was played out long before this album dropped, but is still a pretty good song. “Born Sinner” as a song was probably the best way to end this album, though. It’s got a sense of hope, mixing in bass guitar and a church choir to give it a feeling of, well, deliverance for lack of better terminology.
Best Tracks: “Land of the Snakes,” “Forbidden Fruit,” “Born Sinner”
4) KOD (2018)
Long story short: KOD was an album with good individual songs but a little more abstract than Cole’s other projects. It’s extremely hit or miss, with high highs and low lows, and his trademark storytelling is largely absent. This has been written about previously for the blog, so I won’t go into too much more about it.
As I felt in 2018, however, the best tracks are still “ATM,” “Kevin’s Heart,” “1985 (Intro to ‘The Fall Off’).” Because of Kevin Hart’s marriage issues at the time, “Kevin’s Heart” and its subsequent music video hit home. “1985” touched on Cole’s outlook on, and advice to, present-day rappers. “ATM” was just a bop.
Best Tracks: “ATM,” “Kevin’s Heart,” “1985 (Intro to ‘The Fall Off’)”
3) 2014 Forest Hills Drive (2014)
2014 Forest Hills Drive will always have a special place in my heart. This was the album that finally told me J. Cole would be a mainstay in contemporary hip-hop. When his first two efforts got bogged down by collabs and experimentation, FHD decided to strip that bare and let him focus on improving his production quality. The result was the beginning of a transformation, as Cole finally seemed to find his sound. What’s more, he went double platinum with no features!
“Wet Dreamz,” while pretty self-explanatory, shows Cole returning to his storytelling strengths. In “Fire Squad,” he drops a lot of facts about the two-faced nature of the industry and the appropriation of hip-hop. “G.O.M.D.” is a hype track. “No Role Modelz” got a shout out on the late Larry King’s show when he interviewed Nia Long, who said, “he’s really not too young.” That’s a strong endorsement, Jermaine!
Best Tracks: “Wet Dreamz,” “Fire Squad,” “No Role Modelz”
2) 4 Your Eyez Only (2016)
It took me a while to truly appreciate the brilliance of this album. I’m a sucker for hip-hop concept albums, such as Lupe Fiasco’s Food & Liquor or Kendrick Lamar’s entire discography. 4 Your Eyez Only followed the first-person life cycle of a man growing up in the streets, falling in love, and becoming a father before meeting his untimely demise.
“Neighbors” is obviously the biggest standout track. Combined with “Immortal” and “Change,” the three songs show the internal struggle of the character Cole is portraying. “Deja Vu,” “Foldin Clothes,” and both parts of “She’s Mine” emphasize how much love has changed his behavior and thought process. “4 Your Eyez Only,” the titular track, ties it all together with a final, posthumous message to the character’s daughter. It is truly a beautiful album.
Best Tracks: “Change,” “Neighbors,” “4 Your Eyez Only”
1) The Off-Season (2021)
The Off-Season is Cole’s best album to date. Call it recency bias or whatever you want, but I said what I said. Similar to West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, the Fayetteville native seems to have married everything he’s learned in the industry thus far to make what may very well become his magnum opus. Off-Season, despite being only months old, is a fantastic project that balances production, features, and most importantly, bars!
Listen, Cole said he’d “put a right M on your head, you Luigi brother now” on the opening track with freaking Cam’ron as his hype man. CAM’RON! In 2013, that would have been a dated feature, but it comes off as a throwback with a more established career now. On “a p p l y i n g . p r e s s u r e” he criticizes fake rappers. “Ain’t nothin’ wrong with livin’ check to check ’cause most have to,” he raps. “Instead of cappin’, why don’t you talk about being a broke rapper?” Given his humble beginnings, Cole knows a thing or two about that.
Best Tracks: “9 5 . s o u t h,” “p r i d e . i s . t h e . d e v i l,” “l e t . g o . m y . h a n d”
Cole’s music has seen a lot of twists and turns since Cole World. It feels very easy to rank these efforts as a result. I think he finally discovered his preferred production style in 2014, and he’s been cruising ever since. It also helped to keep the features on his albums to a minimum. What about you? How would you rank Cole’s albums?