25 Best J. Cole Songs That Didn’t Make the Album, Ranked

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25 Best J. Cole Songs That Didn’t Make the Album

As someone who’s occupied a front-row seat on the J. Cole bandwagon since 2009, the painful experience of coming across “Best J. Cole Songs” lists on the internet, only to find out that they’re made up entirely of studio album cuts, serves merely as a reminder that many alleged rap fans are a) unfamiliar with Cole’s work beyond the realm of official studio releases and/or b) ignorant enough to overlook it. Now, if you fall in either of these categories, my only suggestion is this: If you’re going to argue that J. Cole is not on the same tier as Drake and Kendrick, at least make sure you’re familiar with his entire catalog; and if you’re still unconvinced of his greatness? Consider yourself a lost cause.

With all due respect to J. Cole’s five No. 1 albums-the last three of which, famously, went Platinum with no features-the majority of his greatest songs are peppered throughout his non-album catalog, which includes three mixtapes (2007’s The Come Up, 2009’s The Warm Up, 2010’s Friday Night Lights), two EPs (2013’s Truly Yours and Truly Yours 2), and two Dreamville compilation mixtapes (2014’s Revenge of the Dreamers and 2015’s Revenge of the Dreamers II), as well as numerous one-off loosies.

Before we get to our top 25, let’s go over a few guidelines.

  • All 73 tracks spread across Cole’s five studio albums are disqualified: this includes all bonus tracks, as well as any song that was initially featured on a mixtape and then subsequently wound up on a studio release (i.e. “Lights Please” and “In the Morning”).
  • Eliminated from contention are songs that feature Cole, even if they are mixtape cuts and/or unreleased tracks. Say goodbye to G.O.O.D. Friday standout “Looking for Trouble.”
  • Every track from any of the above-mentioned projects-the three mixtapes, two EPs, and two compilation tapes-is eligible.
  • Any loosie is eligible: this includes one-off singles released to iTunes (except for “Middle Child,” because we don’t know where it’ll end up), along with any freestyle or unreleased cut posted to SoundCloud.

25. “Losing My Balance”

Project: The Warm Up (2009)
Producer: J. Cole

Rapping over production as minimal as an acoustic guitar loop on your second project is a bold move; unless you’re a 23-year-old J. Cole, who arrived on the scene equipped with a polished flow equally as smooth as most hip-hop veterans. The track not only showcased his airtight delivery and catchy cadence but also his story-telling ability, as Cole painted a picture-merely about the insecurity of life, no less-which remains one of his first introspective masterpieces.

24. “Revenge of the Dreamers”

Project: Revenge of the Dreamers (2014)
Producer: J. Cole

Arriving in January 2014, just six months after Born Sinner out-sold Yeezus, it would’ve been understandable had J. Cole used the title track for the debut mixtape by Dreamville Records crew as his personal victory lap. Instead, “Revenge of the Dreamers” finds him hungry, with Cole opening the track rapping, “I’m in the zone this year, it’s all fire n**** check my attire/Your worst fear is confirmed, your reign at the top expires this year.” As far as Cole could tell, the entire rap game was still sleeping on him.

23. “Kenny Lofton” ft. Young Jeezy

Project: Truly Yours 2 (2013)
Producer: Canei Finch

If his guest spot on 21 Savage’s “alot” reminded you that no one sounds better rapping over soulful beats than Cole, do yourself a favor and revisit “Kenny Lofton,” a cut from his 2013 EP Truly Yours 2. Backed by a flip of The Manhattans’ ‘70s R&B hit “Hurt,” Cole gets contemplative and delivers social commentary, while still flexing lyrically, of course. In hindsight, “Kenny Lofton” is essentially a prelude to “No Role Modelz,” as Cole raps about how people only care about black people if they’re successful athletes or rappers.

22. “Home for the Holidays”

Project: Friday Night Lights (2010)
Producer: J. Cole

Whenever we praise J. Cole’s skill as a storyteller, we have a habit of focusing strictly on heart-wrenching tracks such as “Lost Ones,” “Breakdown,” and “4 Your Eyez Only.” However, coming-of-age songs like “Wet Dreamz” and “‘03 Adolescence” are equally as good from a storytelling perspective, though neither is as catchy as “Home for the Holidays,” the most underrated song on Friday Night Lights. Centered around a topic that every twentysomething is familiar with-returning home after an extended period of time-listeners can’t help but sing along as Cole effortlessly delivers his verses with a catchy cadence.

21. “Can I Holla At You”

Project: Truly Yours (2013)
Producer: Lauryn Hill, J. Cole, & Carlos Santana

Cole is lights out when sampling Lauryn Hill. Overshadowed by fan favorite “Cole Summer,” though, is “Can I Holla At You,” the opening number on his first Truly Yours EP. Backed by Carlos Santana’s guitar licks lifted from Hill’s “To Zion,” Cole spends the song speaking to three people from his past: The first verse is directed towards a girl he used to date, the second towards his step-father, and the third aimed at an old friend.

20. “Enchanted” ft. Omen

Project: Friday Night Lights (2010)
Producer: J. Cole, Omen

“Enchanted” opens with J. Cole giving us a glimpse of his hometown of Fayetteville, North Carolina, by painting a picture of despair, rapping, “This is where the fathers ain't livin', at least not with us / Might see 'em 'round the city and won't even say 'What's up?' / When n****s play tough, won't even smile in mirrors, and we learn to fuckin’ hoes off trial and error.” Delivered by Cole with equal parts conviction and confidence, it’s easy to miss how depressing yet real the lyrics actually are. After handling hook duties-with the chorus interpolating 2Pac’s “Hail Mary”-Cole throws the keys to Dreamville signee Omen for the second verse, before returning to close the track with an impassioned but slightly morbid message.

19. “Everybody Dies”

Project: N/A (2016)
Producer: J. Cole

In the week leading up to the release of his fourth studio album 4 Your Eyez Only, J. Cole shared a pair of promo singles with the masses: “False Prophets” and “Everybody Dies.” While the former grabbed headlines for its not-so-subliminal shots at Kanye, the latter was a warning shot to the entire rap game. In hindsight, the track is a prelude of sorts for “1985” and “Middle Child,” both of which find Cole playing big brother to the SoundCloud rappers he allegedly attacked on “Everybody Dies.”

18. “Folgers Crystals”

Project: Revenge of the Dreamers II (2015)
Producer: J. Cole, Elite

One year removed from going Platinum with no features, Cole reminded doubters that success hadn’t diminished hunger with “Folgers Crystals,” the opener from Dreamville’s second compilation mixtape Revenge of the Dreamers II. Having spent nearly all of 2015 operating in the shadows while peers Drake and Kendrick released career-altering projects, the song felt like Cole’s return address, a public service announcement of sorts for fools still sleeping on him.

17. “Dead Presidents II”

Project: The Warm Up (2009)
Producer: Ski Beatz

When you’re the first Roc Nation signee, a hyped rapper who’s directly in the shadow of the GOAT, it’d probably be a good idea if you don’t rap over a classic JAY-Z beat, let alone one as iconic as “Dead Presidents II,” especially after your first attempt was “not up to par” according to the man himself. Of course, J. Cole did the exact opposite of what anyone in his situation would do, but his boldness paid off.

16. “Cole Summer”

Project: Truly Yours 2 (2013)
Producer: J. Cole

At the time, Cole’s uncertainty was real: following an underwhelming debut album, J. Cole had to deliver with his follow-up; or else. Facing adversity, Cole submitted a fascinating display of self-awareness, highlighted by perhaps the most honest yet humorous attempt at self-deprecation in hip-hop history, rapping, “Throwing thousands in the strip club with Drizzy / Difference is I’m throwing four, he’s throwing fifty.

15. “I Get Up”

Project: The Warm Up (2009)
Producer: J. Cole

If you remain unconvinced that J. Cole is the voice of middle-class Millennials who entered college at the start of the decade, chances are you haven’t heard “I Get Up,” undoubtedly the most underappreciated track off his 2009 breakthrough mixtape The Warm Up. Consider: he was TWENTY THREE and on his second mixtape when this dropped. And yet, he comes across as far wiser, an orator who resonates by taking L’s in stride. If there’s any one reason why Cole’s considered the Nas of Generation Y, it’s because he’s been painting pictures of survival for 10 years and counting.

14. “Farewell”

Project: Friday Night Lights (2010)
Producer: J. Cole

Backed by a haunting instrumental that spells impending doom, J. Cole delivers two stream-of-consciousness verses while reflecting on how he’ll be remembered when he’s gone, rapping, “Will they say I was a sinner or pretend I was a saint?” Cole’s deep-thinking questions force the listener to get lost in a fascinating alternate reality, one where Friday Nights Lights-as initially intended-serves as his official debut album. If it had, “Farewell” might be remembered differently: a fitting curtain-call to the first chapter in J. Cole’s career.

13. “Get Free (Cole World)”

Project: N/A (2012)
Producer: Major Lazer

J. Cole dropped this gem in September 2012, to celebrate the one-year anniversary of his debut album Cole World: The Sideline Story. Arriving at a time when electronic music had recently bled over into hip-hop, Cole struck gold with a gorgeous beat courtesy of Major Lazer. Aside from Diplo’s dazzling production, the highlight of the song is Cole’s second verse. Assisted by synth flourishes, the rapper’s delivery is mesmerizing in a way that it distracts you from listening to the lyrics; only upon playing it back do you notice each and every punch Cole packs inside his bars.

12. “Can I Live”

Project: The Warm Up (2009)
Producer: Syience

As if it wasn’t bold enough to rap over “Dead Presidents II,” Cole doubled-down and jacked the title of one of JAY-Z’s greatest hits for the standout track from his star-making second mixtape The Warm Up. This time, though, the beat is original and finds Cole detailing his come-up while oscillating between hope and fear. In the final verse, he touches on black lives lost and references JAY-Z’s “Can I Live,” pondering his own demise while asking God the very question his idol repeated on his iconic debut.

11. “Back to the Topic (Freestyle)”

Project: Friday Night Lights (2010)
Producer: Mario Winans

J. Cole opens Friday Night Lights with the best three-song sequence in his entire discography: the Lauryn Hill-sampled “Too Deep for the Intro” sets the stage for the triumphant “Before I’m Gone,” which bleeds into the rap marathon that is “Back to the Topic.” Any one of the three tracks are worthy of being considered the best song on the tape, but “Back to the Topic” is undoubtedly your favorite rapper’s favorite FNL cut, if not their favorite Cole song period.

10. “Dolla and a Dream II”

Project: The Warm Up (2009)
Producer: J. Cole

The standout track in the three-song series that J. Cole built his career on, “Dolla and a Dream II” hasn’t aged as well as other gems from The Warm Up. Cole’s production is basic and his vocals are unpolished; the whole rags-to-riches premise even seems contrived. And yet, the track is perfect in its simplicity, as it lays the foundation for Cole’s relatability through its feelings of hope and aspiration. On the project where he’d first make his mark as the future voice of his generation, “Dolla and a Dream II” is his most introspective moment.

9. “Before I’m Gone”

Project: Friday Night Lights (2010)
Producer: J. Cole

After leading off the biggest project of his career with the laid-back “Too Deep for the Intro,” J. Cole took listeners to church on “Before I’m Gone.” As soon as you hear the wailing choir accompanied by snare drums, you know he’s about to rap his face off. As usual, he does, all while addressing the violence in his hometown and the struggles-his struggles-of the people there.

8. “Grown Simba”

Project: The Warm Up (2009)
Producer: J. Cole

Depending on how cynical you are, J. Cole’s “Simba” series comes across as either trite or prophetic; there is no in-between. Sure, the theme is corny; and yes, I concede that, since every rapper who’s ever entered a recording booth has claimed himself to be king, Cole is as much an oracle as the next rapper. Even so, in no way does this diminish the three-song series in regards to greatness. Each installment serves as a lyrical exercise, with the second edition, “Grown Simba,” supplanting its predecessor-“Simba,” off 2007’s The Come Up-with handfuls of clever wordplay and a vicious rhyme scheme.

7. “The Autograph”

Project: Friday Night Lights (2010)
Producer: J. Cole

Friday Night Lights is overflowing with ambition, as evidenced by the feverish hunger emanating from tracks like “Before I’m Gone,” “Back to the Topic,” “Premeditated Murder,” and “Farwell.” As such, it’s easy to recognize “The Autograph” as the tape’s victory lap, the lone moment when Cole lets himself relax and bask in his newfound fame. Here is where he finally comes to grips with his place atop hip-hop, reflecting on his rise while looking back at his North Carolina upbringing. In place of dazzling production and mind-numbing lyrics, Cole carries the song on his confidence alone, a characteristic which, as the title suggests, is refreshingly authentic.

6. “2Face”

Project: Friday Night Lights (2010)
Producer: Syience

Back when it was fashionable to dub J. Cole as a new generation’s Nas, “2Face” was among the first tracks you referenced as proof of his greatness. More than anything, though, he conveys a certain level of raw emotion that’s reminiscent of a young Nas; when he raps, “Ink from the pen spilling on my notebook / Filled with my dreams, this is my hope book,” the lyrics are delivered straight from his heart.

5. “Too Deep for the Intro”

Project: Friday Night Lights (2010)
Producer: J. Cole

Facing insurmountable expectations, Cole delivered with the opening number; “Too Deep for the Intro” finds him candid, paying tribute to his roots—reminiscing on his upbringing in North Carolina and his experiences in college—while looking ahead to what his future holds. At the time, no rapper besides Drake was worthy of being considered the face of rap’s incoming generation; but if there was ever a specific moment when Cole threw his name into the conversation, “Too Deep for the Intro” was it.

4. “The Cure”

Project: N/A (2012)
Producer: Don Jazzy, Q-Tip, Mike Dean, Kanye West, Jeff Bhasker

When listening to Watch the Throne for the very first time, I remember being unable to contain my excitement as soon as I heard the opening horns on “Lift Off,” only to find out the glorious production was wasted by Kanye and JAY-Z, who submitted ad libs disguised as half-ass verses. One year later, in the summer of 2012, J. Cole jacked the beat—specifically the tail end which, on the original, features only Beyoncé’s vocals—to craft “The Cure,” which opens with him wondering to himself “I can’t believe these n***** didn’t rap on this.” I wasn’t alone after all. Predictably, Cole rescued the beat from production purgatory, submitting the best freestyle of his career, sounding as convincingly braggadocious and loose as he ever has on record.

3. “Be Free”

Project: N/A (2014)
Producer: J. Cole

“Be Free” is a turning point in J. Cole’s catalog, both in its message and Cole’s delivery. At the time, though a quiet presence in the Black Lives Matter movement, he wouldn’t become a revolutionary force until he dropped “Be Free” in August 2014, during a summer full of protests on police violence against young black men. Since then, Cole has evolved into one of the key voices through which hip-hop supports the movement, as the political subject matter has served as the underlying message on subsequent songs like “Immortal,” “Change,” and “Neighbors.” Additionally, “Be Free” was the first time Cole experimented with his flow, singing a capella in a way which exuded pain and longing. As a result, this style is peppered throughout many cuts off his recent releases, notably “Hello,” “Apparently,” and “Note to Self.”

2. “Premeditated Murder”

Project: Friday Night Lights (2010)
Producer: J. Cole

This was the track that won over non-believers. It all felt preordained; a rapper who’d spent years planning to murder the rap game was appearing to finally do it. For the first time, lines like “You n****s hated and I levitated further / Knew I would kill the game, premeditated murder,” no longer felt like forced; instead, Cole sounded self-possessed, so much so that, when listening to his opening line-“Am I changing right before your eyes?” all you could do was nod in agreement.

1. “Return of Simba”

Project: N/A (2011)
Producer: Elite, J. Cole

By the spring of 2011, and with his debut album due out that fall, many wondered whether J. Cole would be able to deliver on the promise of his back-to-back classic mixtapes. The doubters got awfully quiet upon the release of “Return of Simba,” which saw Cole send a warning shot to the rest of hip-hop: if you’re still doubting me, tread lightly; unlike the first two editions of the “Simba” series, he was no longer plotting to snatch the throne; he was gunning straight for it. Eight years on, the track’s final four bars have become immortal and rightfully so; more than anything, they proved that Cole hadn’t just arrived, he’d catapulted straight into the upper echelon of the rap game.

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