Welcome back to Head to Head with Edd, where yours truly goes toe-to-toe with the superfans of the game’s biggest artists. We’ll take a look at the selected artist’s biggest hits and misses and see where we can find common ground.
This time I’m joined by the homie Ronald Grant to talk about one of his favorites, J. Cole. Do Ron a favor and follow him on Instgram @nerdvocatellc. If you’re into hip-hop, literature and more (which obviously you are, or you wouldn’t be here) you’ll enjoy his work. But let’s get to the main event – debating one of rap’s biggest stars of the modern era. Settle in, time to go to war.
Name J. Cole’s three best albums
1. 2014 Forest Hills Drive
3. Born Sinner
Cole has a tendency to go through peaks and valleys with albums. While Born Sinner proved he could make a cohesive, listenable project and K.O.D. saw him get darker and more unorthodox, FHD is his most complete album because Cole is relaxed, sarcastic, focused and chose the right beats.
1. Born Sinner
2. 2014 Forest Hills Drive
Good points, playa, I agree in theory. As you alluded to, Cole is a great artist who sometimes struggles to put together cohesive, consistent albums. Born Sinner and FHD are easily the cream of his crop to me, with the former edging out due to a handful of stronger cuts. I kinda have a love-hate thing with K.O.D. – conceptually, it’s a 5-star classic but man it can drag sometimes and his shower singing is grating. I get why it’s so beloved – it certainly speaks to its generation – but it doesn’t hold up as well on repeat listens as the two superior LPs.
Now, give us Jermaine’s worst album
Ron: Cole World: The Sideline Story
Cole World The Sideline Story, without question. Cole hadn’t found his voice yet. And though he had singles that resonated (“Work Out,” “Can’t Get Enough”), the album seemed like a mishmash of styles, not focused, and not truly what HE wanted to say or convey.
Edd: 4 Your Eyez Only
Yeah, Sideline Story‘s biggest sin is that it didn’t feel true to Cole or his sound. Still, it had its moments. But just copy/paste what I already wrote about K.O.D. for 4YEO, another conceptual win that struggles to maintain consistency over its runtime. It’s way too murky and meandering at times, so all its goodwill gets lost. That album is straight-up sleepytime for me.
What’s the first J. Cole song that made you a fan?
Ron: “Can’t Get Enough”
Bouncy, arrogant, and explicit. That was a moment when Jermaine started coming into his own as far as mainstream hip-hop.
Edd: “Looking for Trouble”
I’m pretty sure I had heard several Cole songs before his feature on Kanye West’s “Looking for Trouble” but his blistering verse is what made me stand up and take notice. He rapped with such FURY, like every syllable was life or death. It reminded me of the energy DMX brought to his early features. Soon after I tracked down his previous mixtapes and a Cole stan was born.
What’s your pick for his best single?
Ron: “False Prophets”
Cole has a number of top notch singles, but I’m going with “False Prophets” as his best. Lyrically direct, it takes shots at a few top-tier artists and doesn’t back down, but is still hazy enough to just ride or cool out to.
The Dreamville stans never believe me when I say this since I’ve been critical of his more recent albums – and you can’t POSSIBLY offer constructive criticism AND be a fan in 2020 – but I’m a pretty huge Cole stan. But even this stan can admit that Cole World’s singles rarely light the world on fire. He’s more of a features or an album kind of guy.
Here I go being an anti-stan again.
My favorite singles are probably “Nobody’s Perfect” or “ATM,” but I certainly wouldn’t call them his best. And his most successful single, “Middle Child,” never clicked with me. I’ll go left field with “Neighbors” – a single that, along with being a big hit, has a message that resonates very strongly in 2020’s socially charged climate. I didn’t like much about 4 Your Eyez Only, but I loved that track.
And the worst single goes to…
Ron: “Who Dat”
A lot of hype, and it just fell flat. Cole could’ve ended up like his generation’s Coo Coo Cal had he not shifted gears away from this clunker.
Edd: “Who Dat”
I’ve learned that a lot of recent J. Cole fanatics weren’t really around during his early run circa 2010, so they missed his growing pains. Y’all were lucky. Ron is right – after his mixtape buzz, the world was hungry for Cole’s first major-label single. Sadly, “Who Dat” wound up being as hot as a tray of ice cubes. As we mentioned earlier, Cole’s debut was filled with songs that didn’t fit his style or image AT ALL – he was a square peg constantly forced into round holes. Thankfully, he could only go up from there.
J. Cole’s mixtape run has become legendary. Which is his best?
Ron: The Warm Up
It’s just a moment. A breakthrough moment. Cole takes full advantage of it and uses it to take his first steps towards being in those “greatest of his generation” convos.
Edd: Friday Night Lights
The Warm Up was dope. But Friday Night Lights? Even better. Even though it’s 10 years old and Cole has evolved beyond this sound a bit, this still stands as the definitive J. Cole release, a 5-star offering that, in my opinion, is one of the greatest mixtapes of all time. Yes, it’s that’s good. It’s his best work by FAR.
He’s a beast on features, too. What’s his best guest verse?
Ron: “Looking for Trouble”
“Looking for Trouble” from the G.O.O.D. music project. It’s arrogant, IDGAF Cole at his finest.
Edd: “Looking for Trouble”
When you’re right you’re right. I’ve already mentioned how blown away I was by his collabo with Kanye but it bears repeating. Anytime you can outrap CyHi the Prynce and Pusha T on the same track, you know you’ve got talent. Big Sean was there too but, meh, it’s Sean.
J. Cole’s Dreamville collective is one of the most celebrated crews in the game right now. Who is the standout?
The Never Story was one of the best debuts in the last 10 years and he’s only gotten more solid since then.
Edd: Ari Lennox
You’re not wrong in loving J.I.D. but, personally speaking, he’s yet to go from “good” to “great” for me. The cool thing about Dreamville is that from Omen to Bas to Earthgang and the rest, they all have their own distinct sound. Still, I think Ari Lennox is the biggest star in the camp. Her studio debut was one of the best albums of 2019 and her ceiling right now is limitless. She’s only going to get better.
J. Cole the producer: Are you a fan?
Ron: Only to an extent. I’ll take Cole the emcee over Cole the producer any day. He has great moments behind the boards, but not as many as in the booth.
Edd: EHHHHHHHHH. Cole the Producer isn’t TERRIBLE – I mean, he produced pretty much all of Friday Night Lights, and you’ve just seen me slobber over that mixtape. I think my issue is that he’s a little inconsistent. Some of his more recent tracks (especially those produced for himself) have been absolute snoozers and I found myself wishing that he turned the reigns over to someone else to salvage the song. I don’t blame him for self-production – as an artist, he understands his vision better than anyone else – things just don’t always work out as he plans.
Does J. Cole have any classic albums? If so, name them.
Ron: I struggle with this. At the very least, Cole has two joints that are classic-adjacent in Born Sinner and Forest Hills Drive.
Edd: He definitely has a classic mixtape, and I don’t have to repeat which one for the hundredth time. A classic album, though? Forest Hills Drive comes closest – if not for quality, simply due to its standing as Cole’s defining LP. I’ve long called it his Tha Carter 3; there are better albums in his catalog none had the impact as that one. I hesitate to give it my blessing as a classic, however.
What can I say, I’m stingy about my classic designations.
Some have called J. Cole the best storyteller of his generation? Would you agree?
Ron: I don’t view Cole as a storyteller per se. It’s more a question of his versatility and ability to move between styles, which he’s a master at.
Edd: It’s not an outlandish question when you think about it. Despite their faults, K.O.D. and 4 Your Eyez Only are two of the more celebrated concept albums of the past decade. The best tracks on those album revolve around insightful storytelling, which is quickly becoming a lost art among this generation of meme rappers. I hesitate to call him the best of his generation though, not while Kendrick Lamar still breathes air. K. Dot’s “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst” reigns as the best storytelling of this era bar none, and he has several more bangers in the chamber. Cole is top five, maybe even top two, but I wouldn’t say he’s No. 1.
Edd or Ron, who are you riding with on this one? Let us know who made more sense in the comments below.