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.
UPDATE (January 7, 2019): In the wake of J. Cole's prolific guest feature run of 2018, we've updated this list to reflect his complete discography as of January 2019.
10. Royce da 5'9" — “Boblo Boat” ft. J. Cole (Book of Ryan, 2018)
The beauty of “Boblo Boat,” the first single from Royce da 5'9”s Book of Ryan album, is hearing two revered rappers wax poetic on their lives before success in rap was prevalent. Reminiscing on childhood stories is rarely the theme of collaborations, especially when the conjoining artists are from different worlds.
Before beginning his verse, Cole sings a bridge that sweeps listeners in. Small touches can add a layer of aesthetic not always present when rappers arrive just to rap as a featured guest. The detailed lyricism inspired by adolescent memories over 808-Ray and Cool & Dre's soulful production is pleasant as rays of sunlight kissing the rosy cheeks of a sleeping newborn. “Boblo Boat” is home to a Cole verse that will only get better with time.
9. DJ Khaled — “Jermaine's Interlude” ft. J. Cole & EarthGang (Major Key, 2016)
On KOD’s outro, “1985 (Intro to The Fall Off),” J. Cole advises “Lil” rappers to buy homes instead of chains and warns of the potential Love & Hip-Hop cast member future that awaits if they don’t take their craft seriously. The desire to be a voice of guidance is also apparent on his sole offering to DJ Khaled's ninth studio album, Major Key.
“Tables do turn, and labels do burn, the second they ask you to sell your soul…” is how the Fayetteville, North Carolina-born rap star begins the emotive verse that is found on the gripping “Jermaine’s Interlude.” It’s an honest verse, a stream-of-conscious wrestle with internal thoughts sitting on the rim of his mind. Transparency isn’t always the intent when Cole raps, but when it is, when he’s introspective and revealing, the outcome is always gold.
8. 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 The Game’s “Pray,” an incredibly deep cut from his 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.
7. 21 Savage — “a lot” ft. J. Cole (i am > i was, 2018)
21 Savage starting his latest album i am > i was with a beautiful soul beat produced by DJ Dahi instantly gave his sophomore offering an unexpected start. J. Cole’s third verse appearance only added to the sense of surprise. Their collaboration is a treat no one predicted, especially on the intro.
The flow Cole utilizes is lethal, calm and composed at the start and slowly builds a relaxed momentum. It’s a verse that spends each bar musing, allowing his mind to wander in a very eloquent, free-flowing matter. The Tekashi 6ix9ine acknowledgment is awkward, which brings into question if J. Cole is aware of all the transgressions to which 6ix9ine’s name is attached. Nonetheless, “a lot” is an impressive display of weaving a tangent of thoughts into a memorable verse.
6. Wale — “My Boy (Freestyle)” ft. J. Cole (Free Lunch, 2018)
Wale and J. Cole are to hip-hop what actors Kadeem Hardison and Darryl M. Bell’s characters were to the classic ‘90s sitcom, A Different World. There’s chemistry each time Dwayne Wayne and Ron Johnson have scenes together, a natural way of complementing one another. The same can be said when Wale and J. Cole come together to rap.
“My Boy (Freestyle),” featured on Wale’s Free Lunch EP, is the latest addition to their growing list of collaborations. The jubilant record is a bouncy beat riddled by witty bars and clever lyrics. One of the best lines Cole rapped in 2018 is “Have your homies on stretchers right next to Roman numerals IVs, IVs.” Steel is said to sharpen steel; lyricist tends to sharpen lyricist. Look no further than “My Boy (Freestyle)” for proof.
5. 6LACK — “Pretty Little Fears” ft. J. Cole (East Atlanta Love Letter, 2018)
East Atlanta artists bring out the best in J. Cole. On “Pretty Little Fears,” a GRAMMY-nominated single from R&B mood master 6LACK, Cole showcases his poetic side, harkening back to his 2013 feature on Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment's “Warm Enough.”
What often separates a good guest verse from a great guest verse is how the addition amplifies the song in ways that couldn’t be achieved without the feature, and Cole does just that with his “Pretty Little Fears” verse. Not only does he follow 6LACK's lead, but he adds value to the record by choosing a flow, lyrics, and even a vocal tone that is perfectly in sync with the song. This may be a guest verse, but J. Cole is right at home.
4. Cozz — “Knock Tha Hustle (Remix)” ft. J. Cole (Cozz & Effect, 2014)
Cozz' most recent 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.
3. Kanye West — “Looking For Trouble" ft. Pusha T, Big Sean, CyHi The Prynce & J. Cole (G.O.O.D. Fridays, 2011)
G.O.O.D. 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.”
2. 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 was, for quite a long time, the best display of his prowess exhibited on another rapper’s record.
1. J.I.D — “Off Deez” ft. J. Cole (DiCaprio 2, 2018)
Competition inspires. If two dragons are placed in a dungeon, they'll want to know who can breathe a bigger ball of fire. That’s what “Off Deez,” the first single from J.I.D’s DiCaprio 2, offers: two fire-breathing emcees showcasing how high the temperature can rise when placed on a song together.
Initially, J.I.D didn’t earmark Cole for “Off Deez.” It was Cole who decided to join the East Atlanta-born wordsmith in a far more expeditious arena than his flow is usually associated with. Naturally, the pressure of J.I.D’s opening verse challenged his label head to use the record as an opportunity to exhibit the kind of explosive performance unlike any he’s done before. Every line is a bar, the rapid-fire flow is refreshing, and the confidence in his voice is that of a conqueror, not someone afraid of being conquered.
The older rappers get, no matter their stature, there’s an unspoken need to maintain a sense of lyrical dexterity. Aging doesn’t necessary means falling off. It’s better to age like wine than the battery of an iPhone. “Off Deez” is J. Cole saying, "J.I.D has next. The torch is his to take, but I’ll be damned if I don’t have now." If this is the caliber of rapper who sticks around, the present is his to own.
By Yoh, aka 10 Best Yoh, Ranked, aka @Yoh31