J. Cole signing to Roc Nation early in his career gave him an association to JAY-Z that most artists only dream of. The stamp of approval from one of hip-hop's greatest wasn’t enough to suddenly send his latest protégé to the upper echelon of hip-hop, though. Roc Nation brought awareness to Cole, but he still had to prove himself.
One way Cole began to spread the word―outside of well-received mixtapes―was through conquering guest features. Show-stealing performances on Jay’s “A Star Is Born," Miguel’s “All I Want Is You," B.o.B’s “Gladiators,” Wale’s "Rather Be with You (Vagina Is for Lovers)" and “Beautiful Bliss,” Young Chris’ “Still The Hottest,” and many others allowed him a growing presence in hip-hop on the road to the release of his debut album, a tradition he's continued—if less consistently—since achieving superstar status.
Not every feature has hit the bullseye. The majority have been consistently good or great, some are unquestionably excellent, but there’s a handful that are unbearable. All rappers have their hot streaks and blizzard seasons, but Cole's last few features prove he's currently scorching.
Over the past 12 months, Joey Bada$$, Cozz, Logic, Jeezy, and Royce da 5'9" have all released songs that include an electrifying J. Cole feature verse. There are high hopes that this hot streak will lead into an album containing the same fire he’s been breathing as a co-star.
To hold his fans over, we have compiled and ranked a list of J. Cole's 10 best guest verses (so far). Some great verses didn’t make the cut, but that’s a testament to the quality of the selections that were chosen.
10. Joey Bada$$ — “LEGENDARY” ft. J. Cole (ALL-AMERIKKKAN BADA$$, 2017)
Mature musing has been the heartbeat of J. Cole’s guest verses following his fourth studio album, 4 Your Eyez Only. Similar to Simba’s return to Pride Rock, the proverbial throne has made a man out of the boy JAY-Z introduced the world to almost a decade ago. What Cole brings to Joey’s “LEGENDARY” is a meditative session of thoughts on fame, riches, burdens, and the search for peace within the depths of wonder.
The title allowed Cole the perfect opportunity to boast about his double-Platinum without any features accomplishment—a legendary feat—but the J. Cole of today would rather question, “How can a rich father teach humbleness to his seed?” than provide a reason for why he’s a legend in the making.
9. Jeezy — “American Dream” ft. J. Cole & Kendrick Lamar (Pressure, 2017)
Despite the title, there’s a lack of political presence on Jeezy’s “American Dream.” Over a sample of “Flying” by Bilal, money is heavily mentioned while America sits only as the backdrop. Cole’s verse begins by touching on his own paper chase on the road to millions but makes a sudden pivot to broader thoughts on drug dealers back in his hometown, screaming mothers who bury their sons, and those who truly benefit off the sale of cocaine.
There’s an explosive smoothness to his flow―he’s overflowing with energy―that makes listeners want to absorb and consider his every word. For the first Kendrick and Cole collaboration since the 2012's “The Jig Is Up (Dump'n)," “American Dream” falls short of expectations, but Jermaine’s strong performance shouldn’t be undermined.
8. JAY-Z — “A Star Is Born” ft. J. Cole (The Blueprint 3, 2009)
In the 10 years since signing to JAY-Z’s Roc Nation, there are only two songs where the label's founder and its first signee are both present. It’s an unorthodox relationship in comparison to the Roc-A-Fella era and the abundance of guest appearances the head honcho made on his artists’ albums. Other than a record deal, the biggest musical opportunity Hov has presented his young protégé came in the form of a feature guest spot on “A Star Is Born.”
For the masses, this was the first impression of a new artist appointed Jay’s torchbearer. There are a few clever lines referencing gold diggers, Will Smith, and Star Wars and lyrics declaring his appreciation to Jay, but the opening line—“And could I be a star? Does fame in this game have to change who you are?”—is still relevant to every new artist over the past decade. Timeless.
7. Royce da 5'9" — “Boblo Boat” ft. J. Cole (Book of Ryan, 2018)
The musical alignment of Royce Da 5’9” and J. Cole came with the presumption it would be like entering a grand buffet of bars. The two rappers are revered for igniting paper with their pens, yet “Boblo Boat” isn’t the punchline-heavy slugfest fans would expect. On Royce’s first single from the forthcoming Book of Ryan, the Detroit MC and North Carolina superstar recline and reminisce over soulfully succulent production from 808-Ray and Cool & Dre. The days of Cole driving his mother’s Civic are remembered, just the beginning of an enthralling trip down memory lane.
Cole weaving the vivid vignettes of his past is poetic excellence; it’s a potent verse that hits a home run without attempting to prove any mastery of lyricism by leaving the beat in an ambulance. There's a time and place for musical murder, but never forget a great rap verse can simply be filled with memories―“Boblo Boat” is just that.
6. DJ Khaled — “Jermaine's Interlude” ft. J. Cole & EarthGang (Major Key, 2016)
DJ Khaled may not have a classic compilation in his discography, but he has plenty of classic verses from various collaborators. J. Cole scored his first in the form of an interlude on Khaled’s 2016 Major Key album.
“Jermaine's Interlude” surges with captivating emotion. How he delivers each line with the passion of a man on fire is chilling. At any second he could crumble. In his voice, every burden he's shouldered can be heard like a weightlifter squatting twice his body weight and still trying to sing.
The introspective wordsmith recommends fellow artists refuse label offers for their soul, admits the problems plaguing the world still affect him a great deal, and details how he's been contemplating retirement. The entire verse is poignant vomit; everything he felt in the moment was heaved across Hollywood JB’s loop of Piero Piccioni’s “It’s Possible.” Khaled was gifted a gem.
5. The Game — “Pray” ft. J. Cole & JMSN (Jesus Piece, 2012)
Storytelling is one of Cole's biggest strengths. One of his best stories was told on Game’s “Pray,” an incredibly deep cut from the Jesus Piece album. The ability to sleep with women thanks to fame is a theme often covered by rappers, but rarely with the depth found in this Jermaine verse. What begins as harmless flirting with an old friend from his home state ends in sex, but also the revelation that the girl gave her previous man and the father of her child an STD.
Cole admits to wearing a condom—“Playing by the rules”—but it shows how the world at home continues to revolve while you’re away becoming famous. Things are never how you leave them. Even though he just dodged a bullet, there’s still sympathy for the young woman.
4. Reflection Eternal — “Just Begun” ft. J. Cole, Mos Def & Jay Electronica (Revolutions Per Minute, 2010)
One of the best posse cuts of 2010 came to fruition when J. Cole, Mos Def, and Jay Electronica were all gathered to bless Reflection Eternal’s “Just Begun.” Alongside veteran OGs and the mystical Jay Electronica, Cole is the young gunner who makes sure his presence is felt—in both style and energy, he stands out from the calm lyricism of his contemporaries.
From being the center of attention like Pau Gasol to boastfully throwing up the diamond sign, there are plenty of quotes to be pulled. There are certain verses where you have to show and prove; life only allows so many opportunities to rap along legends early in your career.
The underground deserves a sequel for the culture.
3. Cozz — “Knock Tha Hustle (Remix)” ft. J. Cole (Cozz & Effect, 2014)
Cozz' newly-released album, Effected, contains a song called “Zendaya,” which is home to a strong J. Cole verse. But even that applause-worthy appearance doesn’t trump their previous collaboration, 2014's “Knock Tha Hustle" remix. One of the most endearing qualities of Cozz’s music is how his hunger translates into his music; his pitbull bark is vocally embedded at all times. Both of Cole’s verses match Cozz’s intense passion as if he went through a period of fasting before entering the recording booth.
This is Cole at his best: introspective, self-reflective, critical of the world, and reminiscent of life prior to rap success. Over a gorgeous horn from producer Trauma Tone, he shadowboxes with the flawless form of a master at work. For anyone who questions if J. Cole should be considered top tier, look no further.
2. Kanye West — “Looking For Trouble" ft. Pusha T, Big Sean, CyHi The Prynce, & J. Cole (GOOD Fridays, 2011)
GOOD Fridays were the best of times. Kanye delivered Christmas on a weekly basis with impromptu releases, and part of what made each installment exciting was hearing which collaborative features would appear alongside Ye.
J. Cole received his first and only guest spot on a Kanye record with “Looking For Trouble.” After some of G.O.O.D. Music's best all delivered, the Roc Nation outcast provides the grand slam performance that made “Looking For Trouble” a spectacle upon release.
Aggressive isn’t Cole’s natural temperament, but he’s full of assertive confidence and boastful bravado. Besides the math class bar, it’s a verse worthy of an assault charge the way he pulverizes the production. Even after the beat ends, he continues his tirade as if there were no limits to the words being exhaled. All the jokes about Cole’s music putting people to sleep made the final line even more iconic: “Ironic you been sleepin' on the one that you been dreamin' ’bout.”
1. Wale — “Beautiful Bliss" ft. J. Cole & Melanie Fiona (Attention Deficit, 2009)
Wale and J. Cole’s friendship dates back nine years, to when the two promising rookies were opening for JAY-Z on tour in support of The Blueprint 3. Their relationship has turned friends to frequent collaborators throughout the years―the two are a strong tag-team with the chemistry and skill sets to make a great joint album. Despite a collection of well-received collaborations, there has yet to be a song that touches the magic of their first, “Beautiful Bliss.”
The deep cut from Wale’s debut album, Attention Deficit, is a fan favorite for its ebullient hook, Wale’s charming wordplay, and Cole’s sky-splitting performance. If J. Cole was Goku,“Beautiful Bliss” is his Ultra Instinct transformation. Every line hits, every bar shakes the very fabric of the song, and by the flow switch that completes his verse, headphones are in flames.
J. Cole's "Beautiful Bliss" verse has aged like Oprah Winfrey. It's by far the best display of his prowess ever exhibited on another rapper’s record.