It’s difficult to establish a definitive “best song” list when it comes to J. Cole. As a pensive voice of the everyman, Cole’s music is often left to interpretation and molded to challenge perspective. Singles like “Work Out” and “Power Trip” are universally appealing, but lesser-celebrated gems like “Losing My Balance” and “Premeditated Murder” offer more than a great earworm. So instead of doing a traditional “best song” list for Cole, we dug deeper. Hit singles are paramount, but the album cuts secure an artist’s foundation – and Cole’s canon contains a pool of buried treasure. In an attempt to mine through these gems, REVOLT rounded up some of our expert in-house Cole fanatics and tasked them with diving into the deep end of his oft-overlooked album and mixtape cuts, bonus tracks, and rare one-offs for the top 20.

20. “New York Times”

Appears On: Truly Yours 3 (2013)

New York is notorious for being the big city where dreams come true. As they say, if you can make it here you can make it anywhere. As someone who is actually from Fayetteville, NC and actually moved to Queens, I can identify with this song directly. The track literally feels like that first official day as a New York resident, taking in the various elements of the city and fighting sensory overload while adjusting. You feel out of place, but you know you’re where you need to be. What’s better than the Big Apple where opportunities are endless? After all, there’s no way you can go back home to what you know is hopeless. After a while, you earn your stripes in the concrete jungle and even though you haven’t quite made it yet, you know you’re capable of surviving the big leap of faith. — Devon Smith

19. “Stay”

Appears On: Truly Yours (2013)

“Stay” was confirmation of J. Cole’s gift as a storyteller. Someone who could put himself in the shoes of the variety of people who make up his fan base. What’s most impressive about “Stay” is that Cole told three different stories in a three-minute song. “Stay” takes on the three elements of life that every young black man has difficulty adjusting to in some sense. The criminal justice system, love, and the yearning to escape their surroundings in favor of an environment where they can succeed. — DS

18. “I Get Up”

Appears On: The Warm Up (2009)

Fayetteville’s greatest orator resonates with Generation Y. On this timeless gem from The Warm Up, Cole’s forthright consciousness and everyman wit is on full display, perhaps peak levels, as he soaks up his I’s and wrings them out into we’s. In evoking his blue-collar know-how, Cole strikes a balance between striving and surviving. What “Me Against the World” and “Everyday Struggle” were to Gen-X, Cole’s “I Get Up” is the united megaphone for Gen-Y, a “generation of niggas strapped and asking questions.” — Ralph Bristout

17. “Let Nas Down”

Appears On: Born Sinner (2013)

The release of “Let Nas Down” could go down as one of the most classic moments in hip-hop’s newly internet-charged culture. This was a very delicate time in J. Cole’s career as he was still concerned with chasing radio, while fighting for respect as an MC. Throughout the song he addressed his childhood hero, who was rumored to be disgruntled with him for making radio-friendly records instead of sticking to his guns as a gifted poet. It prompted Nas to respond from a place of encouragement, as an OG offering words of support to an artist who idolized him. What was most special about this song, was Cole’s willingness to be vulnerable on a huge platform. He was no longer a new artist; he was already famous. He still brought himself down to a human level. None of us ever want to feel like we disappointed the people we look up to, and one can only respect a person who takes that feeling head-on for the world to see. — DS

16. “Rich Niggaz”

Appears On: Born Sinner (2013)

“Rich Niggaz” is the precursor to 2014 Forest Hills Drive, an album built on examining self-worth, awareness and analysis. Here, Cole attempts to understand the ironies surrounding his career. From his biracial identity (“Half cracker but a nigga too”) to his fight with vanity (“money can’t save your soul”) to bittersweet success (“I just wanted love but this ain’t the same”), he bares his conscience for all to piece together. In doing so, he winds up with a pointed mission statement for his career: fuck money, spread love. And there go you…— RB

15. “False Prophets”

Appears On: N/A (2016)

“False Prophets” was one of Cole’s shining moments where he displayed his genius from a marketing perspective as it related to his music. During a time when Kanye West was making headlines for erratic behavior, and the culture as a whole was drowning in superficial social media moments instead of a love for respective crafts, Cole directly addressed the situation by calling out Kanye’s fall from grace. The track was an indicator of Cole’s newly-cemented space as a top tier MC, because Kanye never responded to the song. Additionally, he challenged his friend Wale to appreciate his gift to inspire fans who love him, instead of focusing on getting respect from the “critics who never even did it.” It was actually a highly tactful way of addressing the issues facing the culture, as fans argued over whether or not the song could even be looked at as a diss.— DS

14. “Crunch Time”

Appears On: Truly Yours (2013)

“Crunch Time” spoke to every person who feels like they’re running out of time to accomplish their dreams. This was the premise of J. Cole’s “Dollar and a Dream” tour, which catapulted him as one of the standout MCs of the era. J. Cole is not an artist who sold drugs or committed crimes, but he’s able to craft songs that speak for those who come from circumstances that demand actions most of America would frown on. He’s empathetic and he acknowledges the fact that he was able to take advantage of educational opportunities in order to progress in life, while some of his peers weren’t as fortunate. — DS

13. “Can I Live?”

Appears On: The Warm Up (2009)

On “Can I Live,” J. Cole is serving hope on one end while dancing with the devil on the other. “I swear I’m like Huey mixed with Riley /Thursday I be trying to save the world, then on Friday /I hit the club, hoping that my dick get rubbed by some fat asses,” he admits. In straddling the fault line between good and evil, Cole gets into the minutiae of his own personal story — which given its palpable emotion, ultimately becomes our collective story. — RB

12. “Everybody Dies”

Appears On: N/A (2016)

With the industry in his sights, a fully-loaded Cole explodes on “Everybody Dies.” Existing as a one-off in his singles package that included “False Prophets,” Cole expresses his discontent with the game (though without name-dropping). From the OG’s to the “lil’s” to the blog favorites, he’s got no time or patience for anyone who exists within the archetypes mentioned. “Everybody Dies” is effective because at the time of its release, Cole had already elevated from up-and-comer to a new OG. His lyrics hold more weight than they would have had the song arrived earlier in his career. Cole sits center, observing the unruly and self-obsessed nature of the rap game in a declaration that most rappers probably can agree with. Perspective is also key to the record. No matter how amazing J. Cole is or strives to be, everybody dies. It’s inevitable. — Rob Hansen

11. “Return of Simba”

Appears On: N/A (2011)

“Cole under pressure, now what that make – diamonds.” The gravity behind that lyric made “Return of Simba” such a ferocious record in Cole’s catalog. Since its inception on his maiden mixtape The Come Up, Cole’s “Simba” series is a course in lyrical craftsmanship 101. Never forget, on the first chapter, a young Cole, prior to a JAY-Z co-sign, proclaimed himself as the light-skin version of Jesus (“I’m somethin’ like the light-skin version of the very same baby that the Virgin Mary raised /That’s word to everything”).

On “Grown Simba,” the follow-up, little ol’ Jermaine’s pen is at its sharpest, even delivering peak prophesying on lines like, “I’m finna put the ‘Ville on the map/I’ll be back, and I’m coming with a deal and a plaque.” But on “Return of Simba,” Cole doesn’t tease his claim to the throne; he heads straight for it. “That boy Simba crazy, hotter than Ike Turner temper, you December, maybe,” he raps, before increasing the temps. “It’s Judgment Day, I’m here to give you pussy niggas hell.” Released just weeks before his hotly-anticipated debut Cole World: The Sideline Story, the record shook senses into critics of “Work Out” and skeptics who doubted the rapper’s potential. As a result, the diamond from the rough emerged with one of his hardest records to date. — RB

10. “Premeditated Murder”

Appears On: Friday Night Lights (2010)

Every rapper aspires to kill the game. J. Cole pleads guilty to such instincts on “Premeditated Murder.” However, the song isn’t a courtroom confession. Playing more like a prayer before bedtime, Cole relates that with no other options available, he had to succeed.

The record shows some of the pitfalls that came with his triumph. He’s got money in his pockets, but his happiness isn’t flourishing enough. The contradictions are a signature of J. Cole’s music. Repeatedly he croons, “Where I’m from, if you ever seen what I seen, you know it can’t get no better for me,” justifying the reason for his Fayetteville escape and rap ascension, which weigh like a guilty conscience. But for Cole, an MC with a knack for slangin’ hope, the reality is accepting the fruitful consequences of his actions. — RH

9. “Losing My Balance”

Appears On: The Warm Up (2009)

J. Cole’s true gift lies in his ability to put words to everyday experiences. “Losing My Balance” is one of the earliest glimpses of his natural talent for dissecting the facts of life that are hard to deal with. What’s even more special than Cole’s knack for painting pictures of the things that make any young adult insecure about the future, is his skill set for telling stories from several perspectives within one song. What’s truly special about this track is Cole’s introspection. He speaks on the conclusions he draws, and the confusion he’s trying to work through as a young man, while giving a voice to how the individuals he comes across may perceive their own position in the world. — DS

8. “The Autograph”

Appears On: Friday Night Lights (2010)

Signing his John Hancock over a sample of The Class Set’s “Julie,” J. Cole’s display of ferocity kicks through both your heart and your ears as he leaves behind normalcy for rap stardom. The title is self explanatory. In a year that saw Drake release his debut album, Rick Ross redefine the title of Teflon Don, and Kanye call on the entire music industry for one hell of a fantasy, J. Cole became the reigning people’s champ, both in his hometown of North Carolina and his adopted city of New York. “They say anything’s possible / You gotta dream like you never seen obstacles,” he insists.

“The Autograph” is important because it soundtracks his victory lap. At the forefront of JAY-Z’s budding label Roc Nation, itself the new regime for the icon since leaving Roc-A-Fella Records, Cole was poised for a seat at the table. The hard work paid off and he was now stepping into the winner’s circle. “The Autograph” is the culmination of a journey that began when a young Simba journeyed into the concrete jungle, a feat that fans were hopeful for and inspired by. — RH

7. “Lost Ones”

Appears On: Cole World: The Sideline Story (2011)

“Baby girl I can’t imagine what it’s like for you/ I got you pregnant now inside there’s a life in you,” are the opening lines to “Lost Ones,” a narrative that pits a young couple against one another when a pregnancy alters their relationship. On his best Nas tip, Cole voices both of the story’s protagonists as they verbally combat the other’s perspective: one is unprepared for fatherhood and suggesting an abortion, while the other is disappointed by the man she was once in love with. Glued together by a tear-jerking hook, “Lost Ones” shines because of its empathy and its sincerity. Honesty is something many people struggle with, not just with other people but with themselves, and the existence of the record proves that it’s OK regardless of the outcome. — RH

6. “Dollar and A Dream II”

Appears On: The Warm Up (2009)

If you ever question J. Cole’s “Dollar and A Dream” series, step away from this story immediately. For diehard Cole fans, this series is everything the rapper has built his career on. Herein lies the foundation of Dreamville, the successful pop-up tours, and the M.O. that resonates with his listeners. On part two, arguably the best in the series, Cole’s promise as Gen-Y’s fire and brimstone orator shines bright, as his individual tales of pain, struggle, and hunger come full circle. But not only that. The icing on the cake arrives on verse three, where Cole pristinely personifies Sallie Mae in similar fashion to Nas on “I Gave You Power” and Common on “I Used to Love H.E.R.” — RB

5. “Love Yourz”

Appears On: 2014 Forest Hills Drive (2014)

“What’s money without happiness,” Cole asks on the earnest “Love Yourz.” In his ability to lift every voice when he sings, the inveterate empathizer swallows the conflicts wrought by his celebrity status and digests it as a poignant display of self-worth. “There’s beauty in the struggle,” he tells listeners, before adding, “ugliness in the success.” The record ends up being a victory lap for its author, who, ever since The Come Up, dropped lines about aspiring to blow and earn the kind of money that would force his pockets to “need a tummy tuck.” But through his journey, dribbling the pros and cons, he arrives at the realization that the tangible rewards he once sought after, equates to nothing. The “likes,” the jewelry, the reviews, the validation don’t compare to true happiness. “No such thing as a life that’s better than yours,” he says. Through his forward-facing consciousness, Cole points listeners toward self-love as a true conduit to happiness and success. As a result, he ends up with his most prolific record to date. — RB

4. Be Free

Appears On: N/A (2014)

“There ain’t no gun they can make that can kill my soul… all we want to do is be free.” Fighting on our own, please give me a chance… I will stand my ground, don’t just stand around.” In the aftermath of Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Jonathan Ferrell, Jordan Davis, and the many cases of unarmed black men gunned down under the veil of “justice,” J. Cole created his own “Lift Every Voice,” a powerful hymn for a generation. Over sullen piano notes and an impassioned Nina Simone-esque roar, “Be Free” finds the rapper inhaling the chaos wrought by a blind system and exhaling the eye-widening anxiety it causes within the black complex. He rightfully left it off of 2014 Forest Hills Drive, keeping it separate from any financial benefit and allowing it to have its own moment. Born out of pain, “Free” is more than a protest song. It’s a real song – wholehearted and all – built out of a punctured wound that continues to bleed and seep through the fabric of America. — RB

3. “4 Your Eyez Only”

Appears On: 4 Your Eyez Only (2016)

For much of J. Cole’s career, he’s had two strengths: telling his personal coming-of-age story from undergrad to adulthood, and an ability to distill complex issues into concepts that are easy for fans to keep up with. But on “4 Your Eyez Only,” he gets away from his comfort zone. In the concluding title track from his 2016 album, Cole tells the story of a man who gets worn down by forces of evil in his hood, dreads his demise, and asks his friend to tell his story to his daughter. Cole then depicts himself, earnestly telling his friend’s child how much her father loved her. The song represents a possible shift for Cole: instead of focusing on the undergrad audience he grew up with, he gives representation to young men in poverty who don’t have as loud of a voice. And instead of making his message digestible, he keeps it complex and challenges his listeners to keep up. J. Cole has always been purposeful, but “4 Your Eyez Only” shows a higher calling. — William Ketchum III

2. “Dead Presidents II”

Appears On: The Warm Up (2009)

As Roc Nation’s first signee, and an eventual top three rapper in the game, Cole’s approach to JAY-Z’s “Dead Presidents” set the table for his true potential. Most rappers stay away from such a classic, especially a rapper who is directly in the shadow of Hov himself. However, Cole taking the opportunity head-on was a huge indication of the weight he was inspiring to hold in rap. Additionally, it was a standout moment on the mixtape that introduced Cole to the world. “Dead Presidents II” goes down as one of his best deep cuts because it set the table for the boldness, confidence, and lyrical prowess we have come to expect from Carolina’s finest. — DS

1. “Lights Please”

Appears On: The Warm Up (2009); Cole World: The Sideline Story (2011)

As the most diehard J. Cole fan can attest, “Lights Please” is the most important record in the rapper’s canon. Other than playing a significant role in his signing to JAY-Z’s Roc Nation, the song is J. Cole in his purest form. It’s his theme song: the aural composite to his set of horns and a halo. In disguise of what some can describe as a mainstream record because of its singsongy hook and blithe production, Cole paints pictures of pain and hope in the same breath. He philosophizes about wanting to change the world, but by the same token, finds his ambitions entranced by the concept of “pussy is power.”

This everyman battle between inhibition and intuition is then illustrated perfectly in the following verse: “I told her all about how we been living a lie / And that they’d love to see us all go to prison or die / Like baby look at how they show us on the TV screen / But all she ever want me to do is unzip her jeans.” He revisits these complexities again on 2013’s Born Sinner, where on the song “She Knows,” he raps, “This is Martin Luther King in the club getting dubs, with a bad bitch in his ear saying she down for whatever, while in the back of his mind is Coretta.” All in all, it’s here on “Lights Please,” where J. Cole sees his forward-facing consciousness become a gift. And what we end up with is a record that is to Cole what a song like “In My Lifetime” was to JAY-Z or “Halftime” for Nas — a poetic snapshot of the greatness that was to come. — RB