After a year that saw the normally reclusive MC play in the sandboxes of Offset, 21 Savage, Ty Dolla $ign, Rapsody, Young Thug, and a myriad of other artists, his surprise appearance on “Family and Loyalty” — the first new Gang Starr record in 16 years — is when playtime ends. But 2019 isn’t when he started washing people on their own songs.
With Cole ending the decade removing himself from collaboration consideration, Okayplayer went back over the last 10 years of his guest verses to pick his 25 best moments.
Now, something needs to be understood: This list is essentially J. Cole vs J. Cole. An immutable fact of when it’s J. Cole vs J. Cole is that J. Cole will win and J. Cole will lose. J. Cole has too many great guest verses for all of them to make the top 25.
With Cole’s reign as a guest verse killer seemingly over, here are the 25 best times he hopped on someone else’s song.
No, this song was never formally released. No, there’s no audio of it outside of Kendrick Lamar playing it outside of a store in early 2011. No, there’s no way a list of the 25 best J. Cole guest verses can be complete without this verse’s inclusion. Off of the lore of it being the only collaboration between just Kendrick and Cole during their ferocious mixtape eras, “Temptation” exists as a sentimental reminder of where two of hip-hop’s titans started from. Also, Cole saying a woman has a “Gina face, Pam body” is up there with the best TV reference compliments you can give.
Finding ways to be transparent in self-aggrandizing rap verses is one of Cole’s best talents. The verse off of DJ Khaled’s Suffering From Success album sounds just like the album’s title — an artist battling the bouts of doubt concomitant of fame. The same rapper who comes in passionately “back from the dead” has his voice crumble nearly into tears speaking on his depression.
Cole found a way to fit his brand of witty, everyman rap into French Montana’s 2012 song about materialism without sounding like a square. Cole said he “went to school with niggas, snatched their bitch, then tutored niggas,” like the cool nerd he was early in his career. Add that to bars like “Made to ball like a goalie net” and “Ducking the devil, I guess you can say I live my life in limbo” and you have one of his best club-ready verses.
Go to any Bas show where this song is performed and you can find a person from the crowd who will rap every single word. There’s a youthful earnestness to a verse that feels perpetually relatable, down to the intro of him figuring out the intro. In the context of a verse where Cole admits to still not making it, him musing about the different types of women he’s been with sounds reflective rather than sexually vapid. His flow is Ginsu sharp and “another shot of Henny so I’m faded asking how long does this drug called fame be lasting” is one of the best endings to a J. Cole guest verse ever.
On Cozz’ “Zendaya,” Cole never raps to the listener. Thoughts of absentee fathers, the Grammy’s relevance and wishing to speak with his grandmother sound like more than tangential observations. They sound like the therapeutic uncluttering of a tortured mind. That’s all feels apparent before he lets it be known that “music is my therapy.”
When Cole feels as free as he does on beats as breezy as “My Nigga Just Made Bail” he’s especially unpredictable with his bars. Cole may have predicted the trend of people selling online subscriptions to their sexy photos and videos with what he told that insecure girl on this verse in 2014. Either way, Cole delivered one of his many standout guest verses that took on a life of its own.
No concept. No chorus. Just nearly two minutes of straight word wizardry from Cole on this loosie track from 2013. How can this not make the list when he “saw you sorting through trash and brought change for you?” But it’s really when he pulls the curtain back on the fame he’s exposed to that this verse becomes a bit more special than a lyrical exercise. It’s his compulsive transparency that gave us gems like him riding around in cars that weren’t his in Beyonce’s “Party” music video and JAY-Z’ label giving him a “weak ass advance.” Cole has a way of making you believe everything he says. (Except we still don’t have the Warm Up 2.)
On this song, the speed of Cole’s flow helps make his internal conflict — between fearing oversaturation but understanding putting out music is how you maintain reverence — feel nearly cinematic. That penchant for artful transparency reappears and Cole defies the conventions of the traditional rapper. How many rappers would dedicate the majority of an extensive verse to show appreciation to a fan for their decade of dedication? Probably not many with Cole’s success, which makes this feature on Big K.R.I.T.’s K.R.I.T. IZ HERE album one of a kind.
Even an intelligent wordsmith like Cole has lusted over the materialism of life in the past. The same rapper who said “all I wanna do is ball on TV, meet ESPN” in 2009 is eschewing diamonds in favor of “investing in urban sections where depression rules” on this Gang Starr collaboration. There’s a relentless fervor to the knowledge he’s dropping. He gives college crash courses on the ills of western civilization and the contributions of Black people while still finding time to denounce modem mobsters and online gangsters. But, most impressively, the elite rapper was able to blend his new school style with Guru’s old school vibe without either feeling anachronistic of either era, proving skills are timeless.
Cole was poetry-night snapping on this joint. He paints explicit images of Black sensuality with invisible ink only discernible by those in the know. Taking sips of her “holiest water” hits different after Cole is “licking her places you lick when you rock with her forever.” Love taking a piece of someone’s soul hits deeper when Cole “hopes you find peace and you’re whole now.” The verse also helped launch one of R&B’s brightest new stars, Ari Lennox.
Before the platinum albums with no features, being left off an MTV’s list of the hottest MC’s in 2013 mattered to Cole enough to spew some of the most impassioned bars of his career. To be honest, this verse takes a while to get going and really doesn’t ascend to the levels of all-time great J. Cole features until the final minute when all of his internalized doubt and frustration turns into a torrential storm of defiant retribution.
He’s Bruce Banner Cole with public doubt permeating his veins until it turns him into The Incredible Hulk, which is really just ‘94 Nas and ‘96 Jay. This verse is a perfect microcosm of J. Cole before he gained the confidence and career clarity with 2014 Forest Hills Drive. He was still out to prove something and would do so by any means necessary whether it’s outdated, offensive autism punchlines or hopping on the song with the presumptive best rapper of his era and holding his own.
The way misdirection songs like this — and Common’s 1994 classic “I Used To Love H.E.R.” — work is by highlighting commonalities between two entities that are inherent of both. The words are chosen carefully to keep the illusion going but it’s the gradual reveal that makes this an all-timer. Why would his boys clown him if they found out he kissed her? Why would he “let ol’ girl watch?” It’s verses like these, where the slow realization that Cole’s been telling two stories at once washes over you.
If Cole’s two verses on this song were one, it would be able to threaten for a top-five spot on this list. The first verse is the flashier of the two with Cole flexing his pen to make cops looking for drugs “the weight watchers” and vehemently proclaims “Oprah hates niggas.” That’s the verse that’ll get your attention. The second verse is the one that’ll grab ahold of your soul — equating dreams being deferred to being dead and then describing his hood as being “victims of genocide” makes his brother’s painful story a microcosm of a larger issue in just one verse.
First of all, it’s J. Cole tearing into a pristine 9th Wonder beat with an aggressive level of conviction on owning up to his flaws. So it can’t go wrong. Cole eloquently captures that transitional point of a person’s life where the past is in the rearview but still informing your vision of moving forward. Cole doesn’t explicitly express his fear of his child inheriting the worst traits of its father. Instead, he opts to reveal this uncomfortable insecurity by laying out his own childhood trauma “pumping through my veins like IV fluid pumping through the blood of wifey while she’s giving birth to my child.” Cole is “not a little boy no more but not quite old yet” and still able to drop gems for the youth that don’t know about Malcolm X and the elders who lost hope on them.
Cole has a unique way to imbue his verses with purpose. This verse is no different, with Cole revealing his surprising run of guest verses is partly predicated on keeping his name relevant in the conversations regarding his legacy. Along with KOD’s satirical slant, Cole railing against manufactured streaming numbers and his tangential stream of encouragement for Dennis Smith Jr. and other celebs sound like Cole firmly stepping into his role as the elder statesman of this generation of hip-hop: critical and inspirational. He also has the best verse on someone else’s entire album, so that’s reason enough for “a lot” to be this high.
No matter if the glow of the “Lil lightsaber” line becomes a bit outdated, this Blueprint 3 guest verse will forever be one of Cole’s best guest verses off the fact it was the first time millions of his fans now heard “the little broke nigga from the ‘Ville.” Impressing people after three Jay-Z verses is one thing. For your verse being the most memorable part of a song with three Jay-Z verses is a nearly unprecedented mark that instantly puts your verse in the pantheon of hip-hop classics.
The airy vocal sample, ghostly hi-hats, and soft bass of the Cool & Dre and 808 Ray produced “Boblo Boat” basically induces memories. And Cole takes us on a ride through his own. From the moment he’s “piling up bros like we were clothing on a dresser,” he lulls you into the sort of hypnotic spell characteristic of a daydream by maintaining the same rhyme pattern, while constantly changing the visual. Cole’s had verses with more standout lyrics and verses with more profundity, but there’s this ineffable feeling of being lost in recollection that Cole captures that makes this rewind-worthy.
The most underrated J. Cole guest verse is on an eight-year-old mixtape from one of the first Dreamville artists, Omen. Once Cole’s verse on the Afraid of Heights track from 2011 starts, he sounds like a man on a mission over those ominous piano chimes. There’s a distinctive rasp to his voice that sounds like pulling these revelations from the depths of his soul. In under one minute, we learn things about Cole and his family he still hasn’t fully addressed elsewhere in his music.
“A Star Is Born” is when the mainstream caught on; “Beautiful Bliss” is when The Warm Up fans knew he was the best rapper alive. Cole was dripping with so much wit, his slickest punchlines spilled into lines unexpectedly. He’ll “let you niggas see the light; I’m like the prison yard” and flip that same light into his mother watching her “son rise,” kicking back knowing her “son set.” This victory lap rap and Cole’s star can owe some of its shine to the perpetual afterglow of this triumphant verse that is the lasting memory of this song.
The mark of a great guest verse is a performance so singular in its greatness the main artist becomes an afterthought on their own song (see: Kendrick Lamar on Big Sean’s “Control.”) A lot of the greatest guest verses are the verses that fit a new perspective into the original artist’s vision. That’s what Cole does to emotive effectiveness on 6LACK’s somber ode to the fear of opening up.
The tender tone of Cole’s voice adds a layer of sincerity to lines like “sneaking glimpses, asking God how he drew you like that.” Then, there’s the evolution of his love from a delicate flower at the start of his verse to a seed planted to sprout a family tree by the end of his verse. You could argue this is the most poetic guest verse from J. Cole ever.
Fitting the plot twists, background story and character complexity of an entire song into one verse is one of the more impressive feats Cole has achieved on the best of his guest verses. There’s so much to unpack from this one verse that rewinding it is a prerequisite for appreciating its brilliance. There’s Cole, his love interest, her boyfriend and the random man who offers to kill her after he tells Cole she has an STD, and Cole gives each a level of depth not. Each represents a different reaction to temptation.
Greatness is often born from a challenge. Cole has sped his flow up in the past, but never to the near-supersonic degree as his Dreamville protege J.I.D. The speed forced an already efficient lyricist as Cole to fit the intricacy of his metaphors into even smaller pockets. The results? The rap equivalent of getting the star in Super Mario Bros.; the game moves at the speed of your invincibility.
The speed allows Cole to make punchlines appear out of nowhere. Lines like “turn your whip to a photo op” are instantly explained with a few “click, click, click” onomatopoeias right after. The Lox, ’90s Arnold Schwarzenegger movies and Coldstone ice cream can only occupy the same space with a mind like Cole’s and flow like the one he adopts for this verse. Calling J.I.D the closest rapper to him in skill feels less like an endorsement and more of a coronation as the upstart MC has outshined everyone on the ultra-competitive and collaborative Dreamville album Revenge of the Dreamers III.
Sacrifices come in different forms for different people. and only Cole can make the average fan empathize with the plight of someone so rich they can do anything, to a fault. Cole simply mentioning the ignorance that comes from a wealth-induced disconnect from society is interesting. But, telling the woman you love you want to protect her by building “a wall worth $5 billion bucks” like Donald Trump is the sort of implicit satire that has become a trademark of Cole post-KOD.
The creativity felt engrossingly free-flowing on this verse as if at any point Cole could speed his flow up to convey how quickly the mother of his children changed his life, at any point. Or, a seemingly innocuous mention of moving to “the boondocks” could grow into the popular comedy of the same name being used by Cole to express his change from the activism of Riley to the businessman nature of Eddie Wuncler. On a deeper level, that line is a clever easter egg for diehard J. Cole fans who remember how he was “Huey mixed with Riley” on “Can I Live” from his 2009 The Warm Up mixtape.
For Cole, with age comes a better understanding of the economy of language. His last year of guest verses has largely been nearly poetic levels of brevity that has led to some of the most profound bars of his career. “Guilt heavy as a cloud in a thunderstorm” is such an ill way to illustrate how the weight of someone’s problems isn’t dictated by how heavy they appear to everyone else. But, what elevates this verse to elite levels in Cole’s illustrious history is the fact that it embodies nearly all of the best versions of J. Cole.
He is insightful Cole who “believes everybody happy dead.” He is rap nerd Cole that remembers the last time he went to church was when Jim Jones battled JAY-Z. He is lyricist Cole who feels so obligated to satiate fans’ desire for his patented word flips that he’ll say he’s “so active on the radio I’m radioactive.” This is the verse where Jermaine wielded all of the Infinity Cole Stones and started snapping at levels not seen by him since the beginning of the decade.
Here’s the scene: It’s November 5th, 2010 and it’s the 13th week of Kanye West’s weekly G.O.O.D. Friday series of song releases. It’s also nearly 18 months since then-newcomer J. Cole released his last body of work, The Warm Up. It’s also a week away from a frustrated Cole releasing Friday Night Lights: a bunch of songs the label passed on. At the time, this wasn’t just a guest verse. These G.O.O.D. Friday songs had firmly established themselves as events that people structured their days around. JAY-Z’s protege hopping on his first Kanye West beat after not having an album out to disprove doubters was tantamount to either a coronation or a public execution.
Ironically, Cole killed his way to the throne on this song. Outside of simply guest verses, you’d be hard-pressed to find a single verse ever spit from Cole that was as efficiently dazzling as his “Looking For Trouble” verse. He was “rap Moses, scratch that, Mary and Joseph’s son” seconds before he would “never say I’m better than Hov but I’m the closest one,” which was mere lines away from having “niggas that’ll blow your tee (T-shirt) off, put a hole in one.” And that’s before he added the formaldehyde.
Even if you listen to the verse now, and weren’t refreshing your favorite blog site every 10 minutes on that November day, you can hear how unrelentingly determined Cole is on this song. Steph Curry drains the shot after crossing Chris Paul into the twilight of his career. Simone Biles lands perfectly upward after contorting her body in midair. And J. Cole telling the world at large that it’s “ironic you’ve been sleeping on the one that you’ve been dreaming ‘bout” was the perfect ending to a perfect verse that blew away everyone on the song.
Almost a decade later and it remains the gold standard for a J. Cole guest verse.
Keith Nelson Jr. is a journalist who has covered hip-hop, technology, and movies/TV for VIBE, Revolt, Digital Trends, Flaunt Magazine, and more. Follow him @JusAire
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