Ranking the Best J. Cole Albums

One of J. Cole’s early signature tracks was “Dollar and a Dream” – essentially an improbable story of a kid from North Carolina moving to the big city to capture the ears of label executives and the hearts of millions around the world.

Through incredible odds, he did JUST THAT.

Though J. Cole’s early mixtapes had him immediately pegged as rap’s next big thing, it took him nearly a decade to find his voice. Once he did, success was certain.

Let’s look back at the career of Jermaine Lamarr Cole, ranking his LPs from bottom to top. And as a bonus, I’m also adding his celebrated mixtape trilogy prior to signing his first major deal. I’ll skip the Truly Yours EPs, though – they’re mostly good but their brevity makes it hard to fairly rank them among the larger projects. Remember, quality, consistency and impact helped shape this list.

8. 4 Your Eyez Only (2016)

Soul in Stereo rating: 3.5 stars out of 5

Read our review here

Edd said: 4 Your Eyez Only was met with a somewhat tepid response back in 2016 and I understand why. After releasing a couple of high-energy teaser singles (including a blistering track that dared to take Kanye West to task, long before that was trendy) Cole followed up with an album about … folding clothes and watching Netflix with his wife. I was here for the maturity but it did come a bit out of left field. 4 Your Eyez Only is a coming-of-age concept album examining manhood – from the block to being a strong husband and eventually fatherhood. It’s an ambitious project that means well but is hurt by its subdued atmosphere and meandering songs – an issue with several latter-day Cole releases.

Forgotten favorites: “4 Your Eyez Only,” “Change,” “Neighbors”

7. Cole World: The Sideline Story (2011)

Soul in Stereo rating: 3.5 stars out of 5

Read our review here

Edd said: I think everyone knows the story behind this one. J. Cole’s major label debut came with a ton of fanfare and absurdly high expectations.  In Roc Nation’s haste to make Cole their newest mainstream star, they outfitted Cole with trendy production and bouncy radio fare. It was a poor fit. Cole World: The Sideline Story isn’t a bad album per se – several songs hit the mark, and it would become a solid seller – it just didn’t FEEL like a Cole project. The soul and introspection of his early work was all but erased. Thankfully, it wouldn’t take long for Cole to find himself again.

Forgotten favorites: “Dollar and a Dream III,” “Nobody’s Perfect,” “Work Out”

6. KOD (2018)

Soul in Stereo rating: 3.5 stars out of 5

Read our review here

Edd said: KOD is an exercise in good intentions falling short. Conceptually, this album is great – a sobering look at the effects of addiction on hip-hop culture and the black community at large. But it’s the execution that doesn’t always pain out. Much like 4 Your Eyez Only, the dreary production and Cole’s dreadful crooning drag things down considerably. The album is far from a total loss – things get back on track when Cole raises the energy level. Maintaining that consistency proved to be a challenge, though.

Forgotten favorites: “1985 – Intro to The Fall Off,” “FRIENDS,” “KOD”

5. The Come Up (2007)

Soul in Stereo rating: 4 stars out of 5

Edd said: The first time many of us heard young Jermaine Cole was this very mixtape. All it takes is one listen to see how quickly he turned heads. While it may feel slightly dated today (it definitely feels like a “blog rap” era release) The Come Up is still an impressive lyrical exercise from an artist bursting with promise. It lacks the conceptual themes that he’ll bring to later albums – this is, simply a mixtape, after all – but J. Cole’s hunger was undeniable from the start.

Forgotten favorites: “Simba,” “I’m the Man,” “Throw It Up”

4. 2014 Forest Hills Drive (2014)

Soul in Stereo rating: 4 stars out of 5

Read our review here

Edd said: To me, 2014 Forest Hills Drive is J. Cole’s very own Tha Carter 3. Allow me to explain why. Like C3, Forest Hills might not be Cole’s debut, but it is his breakout and most celebrated release – a triple-platinum success that allowed him to finally achieve the mainstream success he’d been chasing for half a decade. For many younger fans, this was their gateway drug to all things Cole World, just like C3 was for Wayne. And, like C3, while it might be his most praised album, it’s far from his best. Don’t get me wrong, the high points are very high – after a shaky start, 2014 Forest Hills Drive finds Cole returning to the soulful, introspective content that made his early mixtapes such standouts. Cole’s stans will die on every (forest) hill imaginable for this album, and it’s hard to blame them. It has become his signature release.

Forgotten favorites: “January 28th,” “Love Yourz,” “03 Adolescence”

3. Born Sinner (2013)

Soul in Stereo rating: 4 stars out of 5

Read our review here

Edd said: Sophomore albums can make or break careers. Thanks to this album, by 2013 J. Cole became a made man. After a rocky start with his debut album, Cole found solace in just being himself, allowing Born Sinner to echo the frustrations he encountered grappling with instant fame and industry pressure. Finally, fans got flashes of the Mixtape Cole that seemed destined for stardom. Born Sinner doesn’t get its just due today; it’s shrouded by 2014 Forest Hills Drive’s giant shadow. But conceptually and sonically, it’s Cole’s best LP to date.

Forgotten favorites: “Rich N*****,” “Let Nas Down,” “Runaway”

2. The Warm Up (2009)

Soul in Stereo rating: 4 stars out of 5

Edd said: The Come Up, J. Cole’s first mixtape, definitely felt like a mixtape. But his second mixtape, The Warm Up, feels like a fully-formed album. Cole has much more confidence here, not only finding himself as an lyricist, but as an artist capable of delivering strong concepts as well. Cole finds a great balance between ripping classic beats while also holding his own on original tracks. A few of the lesser songs get lost in the shuffle but, in hindsight, I wish THIS was his major-label debut.

Forgotten favorites: “Dead Presidents III,” “Ladies,” “Grown Simba”

1. Friday Night Lights (2010)

Soul in Stereo rating: 5 stars out of 5

Edd said: Yes, I’ve had my criticisms of Cole’s inconsistency over the past decade or so, but let me be clear – I’m a Day One J. Cole fan. I’ve witnessed his emergence from the underground, his initial mainstream stumbles and smiled as he finally found his footing to reach his current level of stardom. But there’s only one project that has fully encapsulated all things J. Cole – the release that had rap critics uttering his name in the same breath as Nasir Jones. Friday Night Lights showcased Cole at his lyrical and creative peak, touching on personal issues with the wit and flair of a veteran artist. It was a can’t miss-release that is in the conversation for greatest mixtape of all time. While Cole’s later LPs haven’t come close to capturing the magic of this mixtape, Friday Night Lights is proof that Jermaine has a 5-star release in him. I’m hoping he recaptures this magic one day.

Forgotten favorites: “Too Deep for the Intro,” “Enchanted,” “Premeditated Murder”

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4 Comments

  1. My order of Coles (studio) album;
    1) 2014 Forest Hill Drive
    2) Born Sinner
    3) 4 Your Eyez Only
    4) KOD
    5) ColeWorld: Sideline Story

  2. my
    1) 4 Your Eyez
    2) Sideline
    3) Born Sinner
    4) Forest
    5) KOD

  3. Woah. This is a very accurate list. FNL is the best, Warm up is 2 and born sinner 3. Respect.

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