The Fayetteville, North Carolina native raps with the technical brilliance of New York City rap titans like Nas and Jay-Z. His sincere take on the Black Experience makes him a leading voice in Hip-Hop.
Cole and other rappers such as Drake, Kendrick Lamar, Big Sean, and Wale were instrumental in rap’s transition from the block to the blogs. His legendary mixtapes, The Warm Up and Friday Night Lights, set the internet ablaze and were played in every HBCU dorm room in the country.
At only 36 years old, J.Cole is talking about an exit strategy from the rap game. He feels he’s accomplished a great deal and looks to leave on his terms rather than overstay his welcome. His next three projects are said to be his last.
On the Dreamville general’s birthday, we ranked his albums from worst to best.
Cole World: The Sideline Story (2011)
Cole World: The Sideline Story album cover
There has never been an artist with so much pressure on their debut album being a classic than J.Cole. Between being the first signee to Jay-Z’s Roc Nation and being touted as the second coming of Nas, Cole had the world waiting for him to officially claim his throne as King of the New School.
Unfortunately, Cole would succumb to the pressure. Cole World: The Sideline Story was J.Cole doing a terrible impersonation of his mixtape self. The inorganic attempts at radio-friendly hits and uninspired B-side cuts turned what should’ve been a slam dunk for Cole into a missed game winner at the buzzer.
4 Your Eyez Only (2016)
4 Your Eyez Only album cover
Cole admits to tapping into the perspectives of others when sourcing for inspiration. He’s penned some of his best material when writing about situations that Black Americans are exposed to daily.
2016’s 4 Your Eyez Only was an example of a great concept that was poorly executed. Cole seemed to struggle with curating a connected theme for this album. Songs like “Immortal” are from the point of view of a drug dealer facing an existential crisis while “Foldin Clothes” is about the joys of being a domesticated man.
Each song on its own is solid, but they clash when put together as a body of work.
KOD album cover
Addiction is common in today’s society. We all have some sort of chemical or social dependency that forces us to be dependent on something. J.Cole used his fourth album, KOD, to call attention to the many vices that plague him and his fans.
Sonically, KOD is Cole at his best. The album is equal parts entertaining and enlightening. But Cole’s cautionary tales sometimes come across as him being holier than thou. Coming from someone who often touches on how drugs have ravaged the Black community, Cole’s “Just Say No” narrative comes across as tone deaf.
Born Sinner (2013)
Born Sinner album cover
After what many felt was a disappointing debut, it was back to the drawing board for J.Cole. He was down but not out, and he wanted a shot at redemption. This Mulligan was in the form of his sophomore release, Born Sinner.
On his second studio album, Cole found himself still trying to obtain that sure-fire smash single. The difference was that his attempts weren’t as contrived as they were on Cole World. Songs like “Power Trip” featuring Miguel and “Crooked Smile” featuring TLC showed flashes of the J.Cole that astonished and amazed on those iconic mixtapes.
The mild gospel influence and Cole’s trademark introspective bars gave Hip-Hop a glimmer of hope for its fallen angel.
2014 Forest Hill Drive (2014)
2014 Forest Hill Drive album cover
The phrase “the third time’s the charm” never applied more aptly than it did with J.Cole’s third album. 2014 Forest Hill Drive is not only his best album but an undisputed classic Hip-Hop album.
J.Cole scrapped the formulaic album release and opted for a more grass-roots form of promotion. The album had no official first single, and Cole even went as far as going to a lucky fan’s house and playing them the album three weeks before its release.
Cole bucking tradition and doing things on his terms paid dividends. He continued to release albums without the pomp and circumstance to tremendous commercial and critical success. 2014 FHD was the formal introduction to the J.Cole we knew would someday be king.
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