It’s hard to believe that J. Cole’s hip-hop odometer has already clocked a full decade. While his rap roots go even deeper (shoutout to his Therapist days), it was back in May 2007 when the Fayetteville, North Carolina lyricist dropped his DJ On Point-hosted debut mixtape The Come Up. He caught the eyes of many, including Jay-Z, who signed him in 2009. He quickly proved why his signing would prove to be a savvy move, growing his following via show-stealing guest verses and his own masterpiece mixtapes, The Warm Up and Friday Night Lights.
But it’s his LPs that have really shaped J. Cole’s narrative. He went from rap rookie with a chip on his shoulder on 2011’s Cole World: The Sideline Story, to conflicted about the trappings of success and fame on Born Sinner two years later. On album three, 2014 Forest Hills Drive, Jermaine Cole found happiness by rejecting Hollywood for a simpler lifestyle, and last year’s 4 Your Eyez Only he went conceptual, and deeper than ever before, weaving his songs with personal themes of fatherhood, love, and almond milk into an overarching storyline about a friend who met his demise in the streets.
What’s consistent throughout the J. Cole canon is his ability to captivate—whether stringing together a rare but urgent Twitter thread or kicking a thoughtful, relatable rhyme. “It just hurts to not be inspired constantly by hip-hop artists,” Cole told NPR in 2014. “’Cause we are the ones that got the real power in the pen. We can say so much.” Cole clearly understands the influence of the lyrics on his tracks, always striving to be an elite MC, capable of chest-thumping battle raps, gut-wrenching stories of struggle or intricate lyrical concepts with a message. Here, we take a look back at the rapper's 10-year music catalog to highlight his strongest verses—a tough task regarding an MC as thoughtful as Jermaine. Welcome to Cole World.