Following the release of 2017’s All Amerikkkan Bada$$, Joey Bada$$ claimed that he’d secured the last of J. Cole’s coveted guest verses. After popping up on “Legendary,” the New York MC told Ebro that those bars were Cole’s last non-canonical appearance:

"Cole already told me has was getting me my verse. And literally, he told me like 'yo, Joe you are the only person I got on my feature list. I ain’t doing no more features.'"

Known for working in self-imposed isolation, it seemed plausible that Joey’s claims were verified fact. Come 2018, it became clear that the Dreamville figurehead had recalibrated his stance. In the months that followed, Cole went on a prolific run that made each impromptu verse into a cultural event. Deemed a headline in itself, this spree of hook-ups carried the power to supersede the primary artist but paid off in dividends with cherished mainstream publicity. In fact, the trade-off between newsworthiness and the potential to be overshadowed-- or “renegaded”-- by Cole was noted during his contemplative verse on 21 Savage’s “A Lot”:

“Ok, no problem, I’ll show up on everyone album, you know what the outcome will be. I’m batting a thousand it’s got to the point where these rappers don’t even like rapping with me.”

Through careful mediation, his decision to keep his appearances sporadic meant that they retained a sense of occasion that most features severely lack. Now that he’s earmarked Revenge Of The Dreamers III for an April release, the curtain is being drawn on this illustrious tear through the hip-hop landscape. By way of a crescendo, Cole commandeered the headlines once again with a spot on Offset’s  Father of 4. Just like the polarising album itself, Cole’s contribution to “How Did I Get Here?” sparked debate about whether or not it was up to his lofty standard.

Derided by some as “the worst” of the bunch, it gives way to a discussion about the cream of the crop from his recent guest verses. Split between likeminded peers and rappers that fly in the face of his lyrically-inclined sensibilities, one of the most riveting attributes of Cole’s whistle-stop tour through hip-hop was the varied array of MCs that he interacted with. By disregarding any generational or artistic constraints, his recent campaign can be divided into three distinct categories-- The Outreach Program, The Meeting Of The Minds and The In-House. By pinpointing the highpoint from each category, the seemingly insurmountable task of choosing his finest feature becomes less daunting.

Without further adieu...

The Meeting Of The Minds

Wale and J. Cole at 2018 BET Awards - Johnny Nunez/VMN18/Getty Images

Prior to picking up the mic, J. Cole was an avid student of the game. Once inspired by the MCs that adorned his childhood bedroom’s walls, it’s clear that Cole still extracts as much joy from the artform as he did in his formative years. Perched atop the industry, this lifelong love affair now manifests in teaming up with contemporaries that capture his imagination. Whether it’s fellow top-tier lyricists or artists on the intersection between hip-hop and R&B, this whirlwind of features was filled with labours of love. Split between criminally overlooked link-ups and acclaimed appearances, these features allowed Cole to flex his creative muscles and display the full scope of his versatility.

Sparked off in emphatic fashion on Royce Da 5”9’s “Boblo Boat,” his appearances on Anderson .Paak's “Trippy,”  Rapsody’s “Sojourner”and Wale’s trunk-knocking “My Boy saw him seamlessly veer between painstakingly honest to braggadocious dependent on what the track required. Blessed with his chameleonic ability to ride the beat and intercept the headspace of its primary artist, this became very apparent on 6lack’s Grammy-nominated Pretty Little Fears.” Dubbed a “personal verse” by the East Atlanta singer/rapper, Cole employed a melodic flow and the full extent of his poetic range to salute the love of his life for weathering the storm alongside him.

With that said, none of these artistic forays brought the fire out of Cole quite like Jay Rock’s “OSOM.” In contention for Redemption’s finest track, his alliance with Jay Rock brought a venomous grit out of him that is often overlooked in favour of his astute pearls of wisdom. Over a foreboding beat from Pops & Crooklin, Cole joins Jay Rock in exorcizing the demons of the past by letting suicidal thoughts, drug-induced sedation and enemies disguised as allies bubble to the surface. Reminiscent of Pac and Biggie at their most poignant, its unflinching realness and combative delivery feels like a retort to everyone that’s ever mislabelled him as boring. In the words of Jay Rock himself, “He put the real in his verse. I put the real in mine.”

The In-House

J.I.D performing during J. Cole tour - Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images

Dreamville stacked like the Warriors”, proclaimed J. Cole on “Album Of The Year Freestyle” and it’s a line that’s felt prophetic ever since. Over the course of 2018, his proteges helped make the label into a veritable force to be reckoned with. Despite their own considerable merits, it’d be disingenuous to act as if his features didn’t help to draw the uninitiated towards their projects. Armed with their own idiosyncratic traits, the Dreamville roster is one of the most diverse in modern hip-hop and 2018’s release slate gave Cole a chance to take his adaptability to new heights. On Milky Way’s breakout track “Tribe,” he immersed himself in Bas’ multiculturalist production to turn in a joyful verse over wistful Spanish guitar. For all that he was preaching to the congregation, Cozz’ impeccable lyricism led Cole to bring his A-game to “Zendaya” whilst the ‘Ville’s resident songstress Ari Lennox led him to embrace the sensuality of R&B on “Shea Butter Baby.

No matter how riveting these collabs/co-signs were, none carried the sheer magnitude of his rendezvous with the heir to his throne. Unveiled just weeks before Dicaprio 2,  J.I.D and J. Cole’s “Off Deez” transcended the average feature and became a watershed moment in Dreamville history. Whilst J.I.D’s supporters have been extremely vocal, this hypnotic CHASETHEMONEY joint was all it took for him to go from errantly slept-on to toast of the genre. Centered around lyrical barrages that pitted their penmanship against everyone else, it’s a track that legitimized his student in the eyes of the unacquainted and became a genuine passing of the torch moment as Cole declared “J.I D the closest thing to me.” A testament to their prowess and skill, “Off Deez” strikes the perfect alchemy between style and substance, serving as a pre-emptive victory lap for the album that was waiting in the wings.

The Outreach Program

J. Cole with Migos backstage at Powerhouse 2014 - Brad Barket/Getty Images

As expressed throughout “Middle Child”, Cole counts the preservation and prosperity of hip-hop among his list of obligations. Positioned as an adjudicator between its past, present and future, Cole practiced what he preached by extending his services to artists that he could’ve viewed as adversaries. Born of divergent schools of thought, the concept of Cole trading bars with Moneybagg Yo on "Say Na", 21 Savage's "a lot,"  orOffset's "How Did I Get Here," would’ve seemed jarring on paper but benefited from his decision to treat each verse as an olive branch. An ambassador for lyricism, Cole’s dalliances with the new school allowed him to test his mettle against the trap-based beats and ad-lib laden cadences that have garnered a stronghold in the mainstream. By placing an oar into their world, Cole not only broadens his horizons but drags the more curmudgeonly sections of his audience into areas of the hip-hop galaxy that they’d likely cordoned off.

Crafted from sheer happenstance, Moneybagg Yo’s description of how Cole’s verse on “Say Na” came to be demonstrates his desire to break down barriers: “[Cole] was like, 'This a good song, they gon' rock with it,' but that ain't what I'm looking for. I want to come to your world.' So I got the trap J. Cole.” Although this Reset standout felt like more of a comfortable fit than his Offset hook-up, it was a little scant to have any true replay value and lacked the insight or lateral thinking that makes a Cole verse so captivating. Conversely, these are all attributes that his spur-of-the-moment appearance on 21 Savage’s “a lot” possessed, and then some. From debunking rappers “faking they streams” to his GOAT aspirations and the heavy price that fame exacted from Tekashi 6ix9ine, Cole’s bars pack a punch without ever raising the tempo above 21’s glacially paced flow. Teamed with the new lease of life that it underwent after 21’s incarceration, it’s the only logical choice from this category.

The Verdict

J. Cole at 2019 All-Star Weekend - Jeff Hahne/Getty Images

At this profitable stage in his career, Cole could’ve languished in his comfort zone and let complacency take hold. Instead, he refused to fester after KOD’s completion and expanded his catalogue in fascinating ways. In this respect, it is hip-hop fans that ultimately won out over any individual guest spot. All things considered, it’d be a disservice to award top billing to anything other than “Off Deez.” Granted, “a lot” and “OSOM” will live long in the memory and are a shoo-in for any “essentials” playlist but Cole and Dreamville’s hotly-tipped MC trading scattershot rhymes will be fondly remembered as the moment that a new star came to the fore. Above all else, the cultural significance of this guest verse clinched the top-spot and it’s sure to only grow in acclaim as the years roll on.

What was your favorite J.Cole feature in his 2018-2019 spree? Sound off in the poll below.