J. Cole is one of the three biggest and brightest rap stars of this past decade. End of discussion. He released five albums that debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200—and if we count Dreamville’s Revenge of the Dreamers III, which also went No. 1, we can raise that total to six. Every album Cole released has been certified Platinum, with 2014 Forest Hills Drive leading the pack at 3x Platinum.
Okay. I’m glad we got that out of the way. Now, we can look a little deeper into the last ten years of J. Cole’s career, during which time the Fayetteville, North Carolina native underwent a fascinating transformation. Back in 2009, Cole was JAY-Z’s highly touted prospect, becoming the first artist to be signed to his Roc Nation label. Cole had his eyes set on the throne, and his two ensuing drops, The Warm Up and Friday Night Lights, made it clear to the rest of the rap world he would not be satisfied with anything less.
Fast forward to the present day, and everything has changed. His hair is longer, he’s harder to find, and his music is community-driven. He’s no longer caught up in chasing fame—if anything, he’s running from it. His label, Dreamville Records, signed a distribution deal with Interscope and boasts some of rap’s most exciting, burgeoning talents. ROTD3 is a GRAMMY-nominated album. The 34-year-old emcee is on the verge of hosting his second music festival. To top it all off, Cole is now a family man, with a wife and two children.
The time spent between these two landmark versions of J. Cole is where so much of his growth occurred. He went from a fame-hungry, success-driven up-and-comer to one of rap’s most respected artists, focusing on affecting change in the world with his platform.
Here are five defining songs from a decade’s worth of material that best highlight the narrative arc of Cole’s career.
“Grown Simba” (2009)
Back in 2009, J. Cole fans knew he was talented, but nobody knew he was on the brink of a decade in which he would release five straight Platinum-certified albums—except for J. Cole. The insatiable hunger for success that consumed Fayetteville’s hometown hero comes across clear as day on “Grown Simba,” the final installment in his Simba trilogy. Cole’s assertive delivery is soaked in desire and confidence, making it feel as if you’re listening to a rap Babe Ruth call his shot.
There’s no better in-the-moment snapshot of J. Cole’s mindset heading into the 2010s than “Grown Simba.” He was a restless prince on the road to his coronation, doing everything in his power to speed up the process.
“Work Out” (2011)
By 2011, J. Cole had built up a great bit of momentum: he signed to Roc Nation, he released two classic mixtapes (The Warm Up and Friday Night Lights), and he delivered a show-stealing guest verse on JAY-Z’s The Blueprint 3. Yet, his momentum came to a sudden halt when it came time to drop his debut album. Cole wanted the respect that came with topping the charts, while Hov wanted a hit record for a single; thus, “Work Out” was born.
The Paula Abdul-interloping earworm was a significant turning point in Cole’s career. While the 2x Platinum-certified song was a commercial success, peaking at No. 13 on the Billboard Hot 100, members of his core fanbase received the record poorly. Cole built his cult-like following on the relatability and honesty of his earlier projects; “Work Out” was seen as a betrayal. To make matters worse, the infamous single disappointed Cole‘s idol, Nas, which lead to Cole’s cringe-worthy apology track on Born Sinner, “Let Nas Down.”
When we look back on J. Cole’s journey from chart-chaser to industry-breaker, the reception and fall-out from “Work Out,” the first major hit of his career, cannot be left unexamined. “Work Out” is when J. Cole began to understand that fame and accolades weren’t the keys to his happiness, a major theme in his later music.
“Love Yourz” (2014)
2014 Forest Hills Drive was J. Cole’s return to his roots. Things finally clicked. He didn’t need plaques, recognition, and boatloads of cash to be happy. He needed friends, family, and the freedom to follow his heart. “Love Yourz” is the record that fully captures everything Cole had learned from his career up until that point. In the words of DJBooth’s Yoh, “It stands as Cole’s most timeless message to the masses.”
“Love Yourz,” while relaying a vital life lesson to his listeners, feels like a letter Cole is writing to his younger self. Whereas the J. Cole we heard on The Warm Up and Friday Night Lights envisioned success in the music industry, the J. Cole who wrote “Love Yourz” admits he might’ve had a better, more fulfilling life when he was broke.
Midway through the decade, the then-28-year-old Cole had an epiphany that would change the narrative of his rapping career forever:
“Always gon’ be a bigger house somewhere, but n***a feel me / Long as the people in that motherfucker love you dearly / Always gon’ be a whip that’s better than the one you got / Always gon’ be some clothes that’s fresher than the ones you rock /Always gon’ be a bitch that’s badder out there on the tours /But you ain’t never gon’ be happy ’til you love yours”
“4 Your Eyez Only” (2016)
The title track off of Cole’s 2016 album, 4 Your Eyez Only, is tangible proof that his transformation from career-centered musician to a man of the people was complete. As a concept album, the 4YEO album closer is where Cole unveils the album’s hidden secret—he’s been rapping from the perspective of a departed friend who fell victim to the unjust systems embedded in our country, to tell the true story of his friend’s life to the world and his daughter.
The nearly nine-minute-long narrative features four verses, three from the perspective of Cole’s friend and one from himself. It’s the best storytelling of J. Cole’s career, by far, as he recounts the emotional confessions of a father who fears he won’t be around to set a proper example for his daughter.
If 2014 Forest Hills Drive was J. Cole’s statement, claiming to be a man of the people, then “4 Your Eyez Only” is when he becomes one of the people. The album is dedicated to a story outside of his own. He created this work for a purpose greater than himself.
“Down Bad” (2019)
“Down Bad” is the perfect representation of the changes J. Cole has made over the last decade. The record is nominated for a GRAMMY in the Best Rap/Sung Performance category, alongside his solo track, “Middle Child,” while Revenge of the Dreamers III is up for Best Rap Album.
Is that recognition not what J. Cole wanted for himself back in 2009? Of course, it is. However, the difference here is the reasoning behind it.
J. Cole is no longer an unproven up-and-comer sacrificing a message for a melody. He’s creating the music he wants to create. He’s the mentor for a label full of young, talented musicians, helping them traverse the industry he had to figure out largely on his own. Cole’s giving back to the community every chance he gets.
Perhaps the greatest component of “Down Bad,” though, is the hunger in Cole’s voice. The 2019 version of J. Cole is in a different state of mind than his 2009 counterpart. Yet, his passion for hip-hop hasn’t diminished, nor has his desire faded.
Long live, King Cole. The 2020s will be a decade to remember.