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The Best of J. Cole: Ranking His Albums from Best to Worst

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We like to stir the pot here at The Hip Hop Speakeasy, and with J. Cole’s new album “4 Your Eyez Only” having been released in January, we thought it appropriate to look at the man’s career thus far and think critically about his output to determine how each of his albums stack up.

In discussing J. Cole’s discography, we decided to not include his first mixtape, “The Come Up,” for various reasons, but mainly because we didn’t consider it a main part of Cole’s career. We likened it to including “Infinite” on a best of list of Eminem’s albums, or Drake’s earlier mixtapes on a list of his projects.

So, without further ado, let the chatter begin…

6. “4 Your Eyez Only”

J. Cole 4 Your Eyez Only Album CoverWith “2014 Forest Hills Drive,” it seemed like J. Cole finally found his lane after a few promising, but ultimately underwhelming, releases.

With the rollout for his fourth LP, “4 Your Eyez Only,” he appeared to be following the same formula that brought him so much success with “Forest Hills.” No single, very little promotion and a December 9 release date. The only promotion for the record was a documentary that boasted two excellent songs – “False Prophets” and “Everybody Dies.”

It finally seemed like J. Cole was about to become the great rapper his ardent – and let’s be real, obnoxious – fan base wanted him to be. However, “4 Your Eyez Only” was a total dud. On his latest release, Cole retreats to his biggest flaws as an artist, which includes sloppy and vague writing and sleepy, repetitive production.

Very little stands out on this record. “Foldin Clothes” has an excellent bassline and a decent premise for a love song, but ultimately is ruined by unimaginative and plain bad writing:

“I wanna do the right things, they feel so much better than the wrong things.”

The 8-minute title track is the album’s sole triumph but even that song gets a little long winded about halfway through.

Conceptually, “4 Your Eyez Only” had promise. The album tells a story of a man who makes an album detailing his life story for his daughter for her to listen to after he dies. A strong narrative can’t save an album with boring, forgettable songs, though.

– Goose

5. “Cole World: The Sideline Story”

J. Cole Cole World: The Sideline Story Album CoverWho can forget when a young J. Cole got his chance to shine as Jay Z’s next protégé released his debut LP, “Cole World: The Sideline Story”?

Continuing the basketball trend that “Cole World’s” predecessors embodied, this debut built on the image, but failed to add to the allure and credibility of this supposed “next big thing.”

In most hip-hop circles, this album is long forgotten. After a promising two mixtapes preceding this project, there were high expectations for the Carolina producer-rapper. In short, Cole failed to meet those expectations (and even he acknowledged this fact later on).

On the real, though, “Cole World” is hardly as bad as people may remember. I urge you to take another listen because there are some fun jams on here, including the great “Dollar and a Dream III,” the often undeservingly-hated “Can’t Get Enough,” and other songs like the jazzy “Sideline Story,” the incredibly deep “Lost Ones,” and the booming “Rise and Shine.”

Overall, though, Cole tried too hard here and that was his downfall. Mainstream success would have to come more naturally, and luckily for him, that success would come eventually.

– Stone

4. “The Warm Up”

J. Cole The Warm Up Album CoverWhile “Friday Night Lights” is the mixtape that got Cole on the map, “The Warm Up” should not be overlooked. Cole’s beats are less engaging here than on “FNL,” but his lyricism throughout shows early signs of his seemingly limitless potential as a songwriter.

“The Warm Up” does drag a bit (it runs for well over an hour), but for young rappers hoping to make it, too much time on a record is easily better than the alternative.

On this 20-plus track project, perhaps the most interesting aspect is hearing Cole recognize and capitalize on his musical strengths, such as his production, personable love songs that stop short of the corniness mark, and an astounding propensity for tracks dripping in intelligent lyricism without sacrificing listenability. High points include “Hold It Down,” “Ladies,” and “Can I Live,” and while there are some snoozers (inevitable when your mixtape is as long as this), the hits overwhelmingly outnumber the misses.

– Marc

3. “Friday Night Lights”

J. Cole Friday Night Lights Album CoverAdmittedly, at first I felt unqualified to speak on “Friday Night Lights,” J. Cole’s highly-acclaimed mixtape. For a project that turned an underground producer-rapper into an overnight, up-and-coming mainstream success, this album didn’t sit nearly as well with me as its predecessor, “The Warm Up.”

But with several more listens, I began to recall the greatness that is “Friday Night Lights.” Cole’s knack for sampling is on full display on songs like “Too Deep for the Intro” and “Cost Me A Lot,” while he shows off his great songwriting abilities on catchy songs such as “Blow Up” and “Higher.”

While much of “Friday Night Lights” sounds like a deviation not far from Kanye West’s “College Dropout”-era production style, Cole breathes fresh air into the sound and brings his confident personality and unique songwriting abilities to create a project that is easily considered his best mixtape ever.

– Stone

2. Born Sinner

J. Cole Born Sinner Album CoverWhen Cole dropped his sophomore effort in the summer of 2013, you could almost hear the hip-hop world’s collective sigh of relief.

After Jermaine’s debut album failed to wow listeners like his mixtapes did, “Born Sinner” was a bounce back for the Carolina rapper.

How did Cole bounce back? Braggadocio from the get-go, a hint of social consciousness, skits and interludes that were not mere time-fillers, and an unbeatable layout of beats, the majority of which were crafted by Cole himself.

The singles shone bright (I mean come on, HOW GOOD is “Power Trip”???), and the rest of the album navigated the trails that those singles blazed with ease.

“Born Sinner”’s strongest moments are the aforementioned “Power Trip,” “Crooked Smile,” and “Trouble,” all of which showcase the Fayetteville native’s range and creativity in a way that “Cole World” never could.

Not only that, but even the album’s bonus tracks are so strong (the 50 Cent- and Bas- assisted “New York Times” being a personal favorite), it’s a pity that they didn’t make the final cut, which is a testament to just how deep this album is. More importantly, “Born Sinner” gave Cole a newfound confidence and laid the groundwork for what is widely considered Cole’s magnum opus thus far, “2014 Forest Hills Drive.”

– Marc

1. 2014 Forest Hills Drive

J. Cole 2014 Forest Hills Drive Album Cover

J. Cole’s early career was mostly defined by getting benched by Jay Z, chasing singles and ultimately letting Nas down. But that all changed in December of 2014, when Cole released his third LP, “2014 Forest Hills Drive,” with little promo, no singles and of course, no features.

“Forest Hills” is Cole’s truest artistic statement to date and is easily his best release.

As a producer, J. Cole took another stride forward on “Forest Hills” with some of his best beats such as “No Role Modelz,” “G.O.M.D.” and “Wet Dreamz.”

As a songwriter and rapper, he’s at his best; though, not without a few missteps. On the otherwise-excellent, “Apparently,” he adds a totally unneeded and unfocused verse with struggle bars such as:

“Today, I woke up feeling horny so it’s only right I got two bitches playing on my trombone.”

On “Born Sinner” and especially “Cole World,” Cole operated with a sense of someone peering over his shoulder. On his 2014 LP, he abandoned trying to appease record labels and found his own lane. Gone were the high profile collaborations with Trey Songz, Miguel and Missy Elliott (though, I personally enjoyed all three of these particular collaborations). Instead, Cole concentrated on making a focused, concise record – and it worked.

– Goose

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HHSE Staff

The author HHSE Staff

Thought up by two hip-hop fans, The Hip Hop Speakeasy was started for a sole purpose: to spread the word of good, underground hip-hop music.