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J. Cole at Revolution, September 11

Months of hype, killer mixtapes, and marquee collaborations have placed 26-year-old J. Cole at the head of the new hip-hop class. As a teenager, the North Carolina artist filled pages of notebooks with possible rhymes like so many other aspiring rappers — but when he couldn't find suitable beats for them, he created his own. This early dexterity with both sides of production have helped set Cole apart during the early stages of his career. In fact, it was the song "Lights Please," which he both produced and rapped, that scored him a deal on Jay-Z's Roc Nation.

That was several years ago, though, and Cole's official debut album has been long in the making. Titled Cole World: The Sideline Story, it's set to be officially released September 27, though singles like "Work Out" have been dropping throughout the summer. They hint at a commercially friendly direction that should bridge the gap between internet-forum fanboys and radio listeners just looking for a good hook.

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