Not all hip-hop heads are up on the mixtape circuit—some don't venture far beyond albums they can pick up at Best Buy, and those usually have widely known rappers' names on the covers. When one-million-plus fans purchased Jay-Z's The Blueprint 3 in late 2009, their first exposure to one Jermaine "J." Cole came on track No. 9, "A Star Is Born." They hadn't heard the Fayetteville, NC, native verbally eviscerate tracks on his two earlier mix tapes, The Come Up (2008) and The Warm Up (2009). But when Cole released his first solo, Roc Nation-backed street single, "Who Dat," in May 2010, they realized that this born star was also a lyrical monster.

Over a simple, breakbeat-like percussion arrangement (co-produced by Cole and Elite), Cole rips through "Who Dat" like a man on a mission, perhaps to make sure nobody ever questions he scored such a prime role on a Jay-Z album. Or to just embarrass his next-generation peers with nary a wasted line heard throughout the track's four thunderous minutes. Either way, his flow is assured, the bars packed airtight with multi-syllabic rhymes and clever double entendres. He's both reflective and relentless.

At its most forthcoming, "Who Dat" displays an awareness of Cole's newfound celebrity status: "My life accelerated, but had to wait my turn/But then I redecorated, that means my tables turn." He's also conscious of the fact that he's still unproven to most listeners: "Now I'm a menace, God as my witness, with this pen I'm insane, yup/Hungry like the n*gga who ain't got the taste of fame yet." And just in case his candidness leaves isn't fully convincing, J. Cole also came ready to embarrass fools: "Boy, stick to ya day job, said you was hot, but they lied/Is that ya girl? Well, I just g'd her, no A-Rod."

He's made bigger, more successful records since, but as evidence that the kid who flipped Paula Abdul's pop-cheese 1988 hit "Straight Up" into a crossover triumph, "Who Dat" remains untouchable. Disagree? Allow these words from the song's first verse to represent his thoughts: "Real n*ggas celebrate it, finger-fuck whoever hate it." —Matt Barone

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