13. J. Cole, Born Sinner
Label: Dreamville, Roc Nation, Columbia
J. Cole received a lot of praise for his mixtape run leading up to his 2011 major label debut, Cole World: The Sideline Story. But his actual debut did little to convince those who were on the fence about him. There were as many misfires as there were standouts, a sign that the Fayetteville, North Carolina rapper was reaching beyond his means. In the process, he let more than Nas down.
This year's Born Sinner was a shot at redemption for the 28-year-old rapper, and he came through in the clutch with a convincing balance of beats, rhymes, and life. He impressively shifts between impassioned storytelling ("Runaway"), and sex-fiend fantasy ("Power Trip" ), and a spiritual wisdom ("Born Sinner"), all the while laying down a solid foundation for his mainstream exploits. With an assist from Miguel, "Power Trip" climbed to No. 19 on the Billboard Hot 100, selling a million copies as a single, before "Crooked Smile" followed it up the charts. Even with the success of Born Sinner, there's probably still a few detractors out there. Cole's response is right here. —Edwin Ortiz