Does Newer Always Mean Better? A Ranking of J. Cole’s Albums

By Chandler Myers

In the months before J. Cole brings his “4 Your Eyez Only” tour to the Frank Erwin Center on Saturday, Aug. 19, fans around Austin are buzzing for the rapper’s return. The multi-platinum-selling artist just announced special guests Anderson .Paak, Bas, J.I.D and Ari Lennox will join him on tour.

It’s been eight long years since Cole last appeared at the Frank Erwin Center with Jay-Z and N.E.R.D. Since then, the rapper has climbed up the ranks to become one of the most successful hip-hop artists in the world. His album “2014 Forest Hills Drive” went double platinum in 2016 and his newest album, “4 Your Eyez Only,” continues to climb the charts.

All of Cole’s success has me thinking- which compilation is his best work? Now that we know this artist is here to stay, I feel it’s important to track his career from his humble beginnings to the present day. Throughout this post, I’ll be ranking Cole’s albums.

4. “Cole World: A Sideline Story” (2011)
This album is tricky, because it has very notable standout songs but overall is a blurry, raw form of the work Cole would later produce. Songs like “Work Out,” which beautifully samples Kanye West’s “New Workout Plan,” and “Can’t Get Enough,” featuring Trey Songz, gave Cole radio exposure he never had before. However, radio exposure may not be the best measure of quality in this artist’s case, as Cole has improved his work by becoming less focused on mainstream anthems over time and more dedicated to impactful, standout music- a quality his fans praise. Overall, “Cole World” did not prove to contain a variety of memorable tracks. This album is easily overshadowed by Cole’s newer albums and even his OG mixtapes, but still has some classic tracks.

3. “Born Sinner” (2013)
“Born Sinner” was J. Cole’s bounce back after his debut album, “Cole World: A Sideline Story,” was considered a dud by many hip-hop critics and even J. Cole himself. On his older mixtapes, like “Friday Night Lights” and “The Warm Up,” listeners heard raw talent at its finest. “Born Sinner” conjured up this raw talent, developed it to a purer form and gave listeners the album they had been expecting. Songs like “Power Trip” demonstrated Cole’s ability to hypnotize the listener as they took note of his unmatched lyricism. Cole was at his highest levels of flexing and braggadocio in this album, but the social commentary- a staple of his music today- took its roots.

2.“4 Your Eyez Only” (2016)
In typical J. Cole fashion, the rapper faded away from the limelight after debuting the successful “2014 Forest Hills Drive” album and went hard to work on his next album, “4 Your Eyez Only.” The lyricism of this album is almost on par with 2014 Forest Hills Drive, which perfectly accompanies Cole’s smooth delivery. Songs like “Neighbors” and “Immortal” delve into police brutality and the multitude of social issues back in the ‘ville, continuing Cole’s increase of social commentary in recent years. When this is mixed with Cole’s eye-opening “4 Your Eyez Only” documentary on HBO, the lyrics within the album become more and more meaningful. However, much of this album has laid-back beats and almost monotone flows, falling right into the hands of his critics who often label him as “boring.” This lack of variety puts it at #2 on my list, but don’t let that distract you. He is a talented writer and rapper and I anticipate a great performance come August.

1.“2014 Forest Hills Drive” (2014)
After three years to reflect on this album, I think it’s safe to say that this is when Cole reached his potential as an artist. Before the release of “2014 Forest Hills Drive,” he had been on the cusp of superstardom, with songs like “Work Out” receiving massive radio play. For whatever reason, it wasn’t until this album that Cole made the leap from a star to a megastar. His fans received the most confident, consistent and focused J. Cole we’ve ever seen. The album traverses the hip-hop spectrum with standout hits like “Apparently” and “A Tale of 2 Citiez” showing Cole’s variety on this brilliantly crafted album. In addition, Cole integrated a conscious awareness into this album that he has carried forward throughout his career. Going double platinum with no featuring artists adds another notable layer to this piece of work.


There’s the list! Do you agree with my ranking? Disagree? Think I’m an absolute moron? Let me know in the comments section! While J. Cole’s newest album, “4 Your Eyez Only” doesn’t crack number 1 on my list, no one can deny the quality of the thought-provoking album and how amazing it will be to see it live. From personal experience, I can attest to how insanely entertaining he is as a performer and I absolutely cannot wait to see him again. Come to the Frank Erwin Center to see one of the greatest rappers of my generation do his thing on Saturday, August 19th!

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