35. J. Cole, '4 Your Eyez Only'
Not nearly as ubiquitous as Drake or as acclaimed as Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole is rap's ostensible underdog. "Ostensible," because he's able to move millions of albums and sell out shows at Madison Square Garden despite his dark-horse positioning. Though Cole is often maligned by critics and Twitter's peanut gallery, he's also loved by legions of IRL fans who see earnestness where his detractors see sanctimony. On his fourth studio album, 4 Your Eyez Only, Cole pulls off the unlikely feat of satisfying those fans while quieting critics who are wary of his penchant for regrettable punchlines and moralism. The album tells the tragic story of Cole's childhood friend, a young man whose stint as a drug dealer ultimately lead to his murder. Not some one-dimensional street tale, Cole humanizes the protagonist by presenting him as nuanced man, not a stereotype. The friend struggles for survival ("Immortal"), finds love ("She Mine, Pt. 1") and becomes a doting father ("She Mine, Pt. 2"), all the while wrestling with his own conscience and plotting his exit from street life ("Foldin Clothes," "4 Your Eyez Only"). But this album is more than a 10-track eulogy: It's a well-executed meditation on love, loss, fatherhood and being black in America. Good reason to root for the underdog. T.A.