Better Debut: J. Cole or Drake?

© Roc Nation/Columbia

Drake and J. Cole have a lot in common. Bad fashion, bi-racial heritage, tallness, and unibrow, for example. They also came into the rap game with hefty expectations on their young shoulders. Drake released his feverishly anticipated debut, Thank Me Later, in 2010. A year and change later, J. Cole had his turn with Cole World: The Sideline Story. With their albums out the way, I've decided to pit the two stars against each other in five categories: concept, hits, production, content, and cohesiveness. Who came out ahead?

1) The Concept:

Concept is the stuff great albums are made of. It's the framework on which captivating portraits are painted. It's what separates men from boys. Both Drake and J. Cole played it safe here, going with common topics such as relationship woes and the challenges that fame attracts in Drake's case and the grass-to-grace stories in Cole's case. This one's a close call, but what gives Cole the slight edge is the presence of individual concept songs like "Lost Ones" where he tells a gripping tale from three viewpoints. Such songs are lacking on Drake's album.

Score: J. Cole

2) The Hits:

Gotta have hits. These are the songs that stand out and if they're really strong they might even outlast the album. And it doesn't even have to be a good song. A hit is a hit is a hit. When it comes to Drizzy and Cole, it should be fairly easy to guess who's the better hitmaker. But why guess when you can examine the facts. And the fact is, Thank Me Later had a slew of hits. Though it never spawned anything as ubiquitous as So Far Gone's double-headed dragon, "Success" and "Best I Ever Had," it still had a few grenades. "Over," "Find Your Love," and "Fancy" are legitimate firecrackers. Cole World is light on those. Aside from the Trey Songz-assisted "Can't Get Enough," the album's only other standout hit was the Drake-aided "In the Morning."

Score: Drake

3) Beats:

The reason I'm giving Drake the edge here is because Thank Me Later is a more versatile album on the production end. Cole's production is strong: piano loops, thick drums, and catchy melodies. Not to mention that he's on his way to becoming a legitimate double-threat a la Kanye West. Still, there's only so much of the same loops you can take before what was previously catchy becomes monotonous. By assembling a diverse cast (Kanye West, No ID, 40, Swizz Beatz), Drake was able to keep things interesting while showing off his own versatility as a songwriter.

Score: Drake

4) Lyrics:

J. Cole is the better lyricist. It's not even a question. He can rap circles around most of his peers, with double entendres, multisyllabic rhymes, internal rhymes, and wordplay. Hip-hop heads are either lyrics people or beats people. If you're a lyrics person, you'll love J. Cole. Half the time it's not what he says but how he says it that makes you abuse the rewind button.

Score: J. Cole

5) Originality:

Neither Cole World nor Thank Me Later is a groundbreaking album. Kanye paved the way for J. Cole and Lauryn Hill did what Drake is trying to do a zillion times better. Drake's emo-rap steez, while compelling, is a less innovative idea than J. Cole's sports-themed sideline story, while personal, isn't new.

Score: Tie


With all the pressure on his shoulder and little promo muscle, J. Cole never wavered from his commitment to an album full of substance and devoid of gimmicks. Without a single hit in his catalog, he still delivered a cohesive album and was rewarded with a respectable 218K the first week, enough for a #1 debut. And there's never a moment when you question what Cole's about. Thank Me Later, on the flip side, is littered with guest features aimed at appeasing the ivy league crowd sometimes to the album's detriment. Some of them even manage to outshine Drizzy. His debut, though a commercial success, failed to match the intensity of his stellar mixtape, So Far Gone.

Score: J. Cole

"Twenty years, wonder who they gone say was more important

Both changed the game, came through and made a lane
Who's to say that who's greater, all we know, they ain't the same"

Drake and Cole both delivered thoroughly enjoyable albums, but there can only be one winner in this battle. The important thing to keep in mind is that they're far less similar (musically, at least) than people like to believe. They're taking different routes to the same destination: greatness. J. Cole: 3 Drake: 2

  • Drake - Miss Me

    10 Best Drake Songs of All Time

  • kanye.jpg

    The 10 Best Producers on the Mic

  • The Story of J. Cole: A Biography

  • kendrick-lamar.jpg

    Grammy Awards Best Rap Album Winners (by Year)

  • Busta Rhymes and P Diddy performing live

    50 of the Best Hip-Hop Dance Songs

  • Celebrate Brooklyn 2013 - Big Boi & D Nice In Concert

    The 50 Greatest Rappers of All Time

  • album cover

    Flashback: The 50 Best Rap Songs of 2010

  • Aesop Rock performing live rapping

    Flashback: The 100 Best Rap Songs of 2007

  • Rihanna's Rated R Album Release Party

    Top 50 Rap Songs of 2009

  • Drake performs onstage at Madison Square Garden

    These 25 Rap Songs to Will Get You Pumped Up

  • Best of the Decade: 100 Best Rap Albums of the 2000s

  • Diggy and J. Cole

    Beef or BS: What You Need to Know About the Diggy vs. J. Cole Feud

  • The 100 Best Rap Songs of the 2000s

  • op 100 Letterpress

    Flashback: The 100 Best Rap Songs of 2008

  • TIDAL X: Brooklyn

    What Were the Best 10 Summer Rap Songs of 2016?

  • DMX

    Some Great Hip-Hop Workout Songs to Get You Moving