J. Cole's storytelling roots run deep. The 33-year-old lyricist grew up on music by Tupac Shakur, OutKast, Jay-Z, Nas and Eminem, so naturally the ability to weave together vivid, graphic stories on wax is embedded in his musical DNA. Over the course of his career, the Dreamville frontman has developed and honed his ability to detail narratives thanks to a wide range of life experiences and risk-taking techniques.
When it comes to Cole's stories, though, no subject is off limits. He can tell a tale about losing one's virginity ("Wet Dreamz") just as thoughtfully as he can rap about dueling takes on abortion ("Lost Ones"). His knack for recounting these stories—whether lighthearted or heavy—is among the most deft of his generation; every word is chosen precisely and no bars are wasted.
“There’s a few things that I’ve studied a lot in rap," Cole said in 2011. "I’ve studied the storytellers like the Tupacs and the Nas’s. One thing I’ve noticed that I bring to the table that was not really present [over the past few years] is the storytelling side, and that’s always been a joy of mine… I’ll give a lot of my real stories, but there’s also my friends’ stories and your stories, and I feel like anything you’ve ever been through in the past, I’m trying to find a way to tell that story. I feel like if I do that, I’ll never run out [of material].”
Cole continues his reliable narrator role on KOD, his fifth solo studio album that is packed with nimble, sharp raps. As a whole, the album focuses on an assortment of cautionary tales based around the idea of addiction—stories that touch on everything from social media to narcotics.
XXL takes a holistic look at Cole's discography to highlight 20 of his most cinematic stories in song.
"03 Adolescence" tells the story of J. Cole at a crossroads—not in music, but on the brink of adulthood. At 18, Cole was getting ready to attend St. John University in the Big Apple, but his mind was stuck on elevating his status back home by hopping into the drug game. He recaps a conversation with an old friend: "He told me, 'Nigga, you know how you sound right now?/If you wasn’t my mans, I would think that you a clown right now."
J. Cole takes a new angle on his storytelling by explaining what he would do if he had a genie at his disposal who could grant him three wishes. While you might expect a budding rapper to wish himself endless success and wealth in the rap game, Cole uses his imagined wishes to help free an incarcerated homie, help a friend's struggling mother and for his mother to have healthier romantic relationships—especially with his stepfather.
"4 Your Eyez Only"J. Cole
The title track to J. Cole's 4 Your Eyez Only is one of his most vivid, dazzling displays of storytelling rap. For nearly nine minutes, Cole takes on the persona of a late friend delivering an audio note to his daughter—a squirming biography that's drenched in suspense and paranoia. For the final verse, Cole takes his own vantage point, capping off a somber conclusion to his most narrative-driven album. Not only does the song tell a story of a household torn apart by the trife life, it also humanizes the struggles of disenfranchised Black people in America, making those dark statistics feel real.
On this personal track from Cole World: The Sideline Story, J. Cole flips Mariah Carey's 1997 song "Breakdown" to recount three tales where personal character and resilience are tested. The first verse finds Cole confronting his estranged father, verse two focuses on his mother's drug addiction and the third explores how incarceration can test the bonds of a romantic relationship.
Born Sinner is filled with cautionary tales about fame and fortune, and "Chaining Day" is no exception. Cole tells the story of his struggle with materialism, realizing that his desire for the gaudiest chain is masking an emptiness within. He goes into conversations with his jeweler, his accountant and most importantly, himself, analyzing why Jesus pieces are so coveted by rappers.
J. Cole perfectly detailed college life on his The Come Up cut. A young, hungry Cole jumps all over a hoppy beat, talking about his interactions with college girls, the basketball team and future plans in academia: "Eligible bachelor, finna get my Bachelor’s/And if this rap shit don’t work, I’m going for my Master’s." Before ending the song by saying "college is good look," he hammers home his unsavory weekly routine. "A nigga doing homework, drinking like a fish/It ain’t a weekend that I’m sober, fighting hangovers on my way to my internship/And I forgot to study for my midterm, shit!"
On Truly Yours, J. Cole tells short stories about a struggling rapper and a D-boy—each trying to achieve self-actualization but seeing little progress in life. He raps: "I told my sister as I kissed her cheek I’m better off dead/Fucking with this white, it’s all been downhill like a sled."
J. Cole's breakout mixtape The Warm Up is jam packed with career-defining tracks like the vividly unraveling "Dreams." On the track, he weaves through a smooth sample of Kanye's "Drive Slow," detailing an obsessive lust for a woman that drives him to the brink of insanity. After nervously approaching his dream girl, she lets him off easy by revealing that she's already got a boyfriend, leading Cole to fantasize about killing the guy: "I give her a little time/Then console her while she cryin'/She gon' take that as a sign/Finally she will be mine," he plots.
In under three minutes, Cole paints a short tale about women eager to bed a superstar, but willing to settle for a member of his entourage. It's a fascinating look at the dynamic between celebrities and groupies.
Rapping from the perspective of a first-time murderer, Cole details an apology to his mother and reflects on his now-skewed relationship with loved ones. It's a haunting angle: "I’m on the run, I live my life like a movie now it’s way too realer/Who would've thought your baby boy would've grew up to be a killer."
"Land of the Snakes"J. Cole
On J. Cole's sophomore offering Born Sinner, he quickly jumped into storytelling mode on the album's second track. He details his move out to Los Angeles and an encounter with a former college classmate who he'd briefly dated and kicked to the curb. He describes the awkward run in and the effects of his selfish behavior.
"Let Nas Down" is a story that doubles as an ode to one of his rap heroes, Nas. The song starts off with Cole at a familiar career crossroad: facing label pressure to make a hit single. Once he drops "Work Out," word gets back from No ID that Nas wasn't a fan of the record, to which Cole reacts defensively before insisting that he sacrificed his art for the greater good of artists who'd follow, who could buck the standard pop-pandering album release format.
The song that put Cole on the map is loosely based on his dealings with women. Here, the rapper vents about the ills of the world and his society—but his concerns are unheard by a lover who simply wants to have sex.
J. Cole won over listeners' hearts with this back-and-forth debate about abortion. The track, which landed on Cole World: The Sideline Story, offers much food for thought regardless of which side of the discussion you land on.
On this 4 Your Eyez Only track, Cole recounts the real-life 2016 incident in which his North Carolina Airbnb rental was raided by a S.W.A.T. force looking for narcotics due to an alleged tip from a neighbor.
"The neighbors think I'm selling dope," Cole riffs on the hook. Of course, as Cole tells it, the only dope pumping out of the studio is musical.
"Once An Addict - Interlude"J. Cole
On KOD, Cole dives into a dark chapter in his life: interactions with his alcohol-addicted mother while they lived together in Fayetteville. As he tells it, her addiction came from heartbreak: "Step-daddy just had a daughter with another woman/Mama ain't recover yet/Callin' me at 12 at night/She drunk as fuck and I'm upset." The instrumental is minimalist and soft in volume, allowing Cole to ream off one of his most emotional deliveries.
Cole's take on the struggle of monogamy has been well documented throughout his career. On "Runaway," he continues this battle in a dramatic fashion, grappling with the idea of faithfulness: "Every time you out, you come back she poutin'/Sleeping back to back, this is wack, we 'bout/To go platinum and I'm in the crib acting out/My childhood fantasies of wife at home/But it's a whole lot of actresses I'd like to bone." It's one of Cole's stories that ends with more questions than answers.
J. Cole looks back on simpler times: life in high school as a hopeful rapper with money, girls and SATs on his mind. He reminisces: "Make sure the shirt matching the forces then I head out/At the time I thought this shit was so whack/But what I wouldn't give to go back."
Back when Cole was known as Therapist, he had a young and squeaky voice but his storytelling was matured. On "The Storm," Cole tells the story of Shawn and Nina, two lovers in a messy relationship that ends tragically. Cole is as conversational as ever, delivering poignant dialogue without skipping a beat.
Adolescent angst is one of J. Cole's specialties, and he taps into that for a fictional tale about the hormonal road to losing one's virginity. "Wet Dreamz" is a fictional tale about a girl in math class, "long hair, brown skin with a fat ass." His hormonal, tongue-in-cheek lyrics over "Impeach the President" drums all climax in a classic twist ending that epitomizes teenage emotion.