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Happy Birthday, J. Cole! 15 of His Best Deep Cuts

Celebrate the king of Fayetteville's 31st born-day with these often-overlooked album cuts, mixtape bangers and one-off rarities

1 / 15

"Just to Get By"

J. Cole's never been shy about Kanye West's influence on him, and rapping over 'Ye's Nina Simone–sampling beat for Talib Kweli's 2003 banger was a stroke of genius and a neon highlight for his second mixtape, The Warm Up.

2 / 15

"Back to the Topic (Freestyle)"

On his final pre–debut album mixtape, Friday Night Lights, a ragged-voiced Cole defiantly barrels from the first second to the last—over the beat from Cassie and Puff Daddy's "Must Be Love." Cole's crate-digging is second to none.

3 / 15

"Can I Holla At Ya"

For the first part of Truly Yours EP trilogy, Cole kicked things off with a little workout over the Miseducation of Lauryn Hill staple "To Zion." Result: Flawless.

4 / 15

"Cole Summer"

More Jermaine x L. Boogie! The Truly Yours 2 EP opener sees Cole sliding over Lauryn's "Nothing Even Matters"; it's too good to exist.

5 / 15

"Lost Ones"

One of the best songs of Cole's career starting floating around, solo, two years before it showed up on his debut album, Cole World: The Sideline Story. It's a couple's difficult abortion argument told from his and her perspectives. The production's divine, the bars are beautiful, but the emotions spilling out are just so unforgettably affecting.

6 / 15

"Disgusting"

Lyrically silly and borderline obnoxious, the proto–DJ Mustard beat stands entirely alone in Cole's discography, resulting in a grimy banger that's a jewel in any super-fan's miscellaneous iTunes collection.

7 / 15

"Carolina on My Mind" feat. Deacon

On his debut mixtape, Cole was bold enough and dope enough to chipmunk-ify Curtis Mayfield's “We the People Who Are Darker Than Blue” for a soulful ode to his home state.

8 / 15

"Be (Freestyle)"

Cole's Any Given Sunday series—weekly free tracks preceding his first album—yielded this loose flow over a Kanye-produced Common classic from '05.

9 / 15

"Grown Simba"

"Simba," the first song on the first Cole mixtape, The Come Up, is memorable for sure. But the follow-up's "Grown Simba" takes the Disney-referencing origin story and boosts the production value, wordplay and panache.

10 / 15

"Trouble"

Like Born Sinner's title track, this mid-album jam leans heavy on the gospel vibes—although it's an ominous storm cloud compared to the other song's hopeful ray of light.

11 / 15

"Home for the Holidays"

A horn-sprinkled Christmas song that plays well year-round. The fact Cole can toss off songs like this and never use them on an album has always been astonishing. "Home for the Holidays" reportedly features Beyoncé vocals, too. 

12 / 15

"Niggaz Know"

The stutter-step flow over this Truly Yours 3 EP cut (later a Born Sinner bonus song) is ridiculously focused and tight.

13 / 15

"Return of Simba"

The third installment in the "Simba" trilogy straight-up samples The Lion King before dropping into a monster beat with ferocious Cole bars.

14 / 15

"Losing My Balance"

Sure, why not end a mixtape with narratively masterful piece set to a jazzy, honey-voiced Portugese strummer's song? Shoutout to Sara Tavares.

15 / 15

"Nobody's Perfect"

Scoring the very choosy, frequently MIA Missy Elliott for the debut album was a big move, but having the track be this essential was huge.

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