Like Drake before him and Kendrick Lamar sort-of after him, J. Cole's one of those rappers who doesn't pretend he's free of emotions. He's the dude who makes a song with TLC about feeling insecure about his looks ("Crooked Smile") and has an affable nice-guy air that's punctuated by moments of impressive aggression ("Looking for Trouble").

But niceties aside, Cole's feeling pretty good about himself.

"I feel like I've done a lot for hip-hop, in terms of where it is right now and where it's going," he says backstage before his show at New York's iHeartRadio Theater. "I still have a lot to do, I'm not satisfied, but everyone helps the next."

That sort of confidence, the type that emboldens a rapper prepping the release of his second studio album to place himself on a Kanye-Jay-Nas-Pac-Biggie level, and say he changed the recording industry's "business model" as Cole has in other interviews, is attractive if you're in the crowd that has placed Cole on a pedestal as some sort of Real Rap messiah. It also underscores his claim that today's crop of young rappers will never carry the torch if they're afraid of being burned by the legends that came before them. There's definitely an argument to be had in that direction: Cole is certainly one of hip-hop's best storytellers, twisting his words upon one another with a clarity pierces the din of today's trap/party rap, (yep, like Jay) and he does it over beats that he produces all by himself (yep, like Kanye). But it seems like lately, no one -- not even hip-hop's bloggerati -- is as impressed with Cole as Jermaine Lamarr Cole himself.

He may be in on it, too. Cole opens "Born Sinner," his forthcoming album, with the line, "Sometimes I brag like Hov," and he moved the record's release date up a week to go head-to-head with Kanye West's "Yeezus" on June 18. Ask Cole when he became self-assured enough to feel comfortable publicly voicing comparisons to rap's titans, and he'll say it wasn't until the past few months, "when I finally finished up the album and realized what I had."

"A year ago, I might have played some of the same songs for people and they'd be like, 'Yo this is fucking incredible,' and I'd be like, 'Well, thank you,' but I was so focused on the album that I couldn't really appreciate what they were saying," he explains. "But when I was finishing the album, I got to hear it like a fan would, and I was like 'Holy shit.' And that's what gave me the confidence that I can hang. I always knew I could, but it's like, 'Here's the fucking proof.'"

The body of work that Cole's holding up as "proof" was first shared with fans and critics at a series of digital listening parties, which took place at certain coordinates across the country that were tapped for eager consumers to stream "Born Sinner" on their iPhones. The album leaked shortly thereafter, allowing for extending listening. "Born Sinner" certainly sparkles, but it's perhaps as notable for what it's missing as much as what it offers. It features TLC, James Fauntelroy, Amber Coffman, Kendrick Lamar and Miguel (all of whom sing), and not a verse from Jay-Z, Cole's rap godfather and label head.

There's a healthy, if tired, amount of skepticism about Jay-Z and Cole's relationship online, in part because they seldom appear together and because Cole says he was floundering while making "Cole World," his 2011 studio debut under Jay's Roc Nation imprint. (For what it's worth, Cole's not the only one -- Jay Electronica has yet to release an album, Rita Ora hasn't really exploded in the states and no one else on the label has made much of an impact.)

This time, it's different. "You're really going to be able to tell how I think," Cole promises of "Born Sinner." "I was listening to a lot of my earlier stuff, even my mixtapes, and you can hear my comfort level. I was only this comfortable at 'The Warm Up.' The rest of it was trying to find the comfort of being a 'signed rapper.'"

What, then, is the point he's trying to get across with this rediscovered voice? "I can say it, but I don't want to give away too much," Cole demurs. "It's not like it's a big secret, but I want people to hear it and take from it what they want. I guess it's about balance -- the struggle to keep your balance, as a human being period. And not just as a rapper -- I'm telling a story from a rapper's standpoint, because that's where I've been, but I think this story, of losing your balance, can happen to anybody in any walk of life. I guess that's the theme, but there are a lot of different threads."

There are certainly sterling fibers that weave through "Born Sinner," especially when Cole plays meta-critic and blasts both urban (XXL) and indie magazines (The Fader) for not giving him the love he thinks he deserves. There's also "Let Nas Down," an intriguing bit of inside baseball that retells the story of Cole being told that Nas hated "Work Out," Cole's most radio-friendly and least critically appreciated single. It's this song that perhaps best captures both Cole's willingness to reveal emotions that other performers would deny until death ("apologies to the OG's for sacrificin' my art") and his flashy bravado ("You made 'You Owe Me' dog, I thought you could relate," a reference to Nas' much derided 2000 song, a radio play that saw the venerable rapper telling women he expected sex in return for jewelry).

Unfortunately, though, Cole disappoints with moments that belie an immaturity that at once aligns him with the Jay-Z and Kanye West of a decade ago and distances him from his idol's current states. On the album's lead track, "Villuminati," Cole tries to dance around the word "faggot" in a way that's at once provocative and responsible. Here's the result, which ends up being neither:

"My verbal AK slay faggots
And I don't mean no disrespect whenever I say "faggot," OK, faggot?
Don't be so sensitive
If you want to get fucked in the ass
That's between you and whoever else's dick it is
Pause, maybe that line was too far
Just a little joke to show how homophobic you are
And who can blame ya?"

Using an anti-gay slur for impact and trying to divorce it from its definition is a fumble made more jarring by the artist that Cole identifies as someone he admires. "Look at Macklemore," Cole says. "He has ['Thrift Shop'], the No. 1 song in the country, and there are kids who don't even listen to rap who live by him. So as much as people hate, he's opening the door for someone like me to come back on the Billboard charts with 'Crooked Smile.'" Macklemore also has pro-gay marriage anthem called "Same Love." (After hearing "Villuminati," we asked Cole for comment. In a statement sent exclusively to HuffPost, Cole said the following: "There will soon come a day when people in general, and rap artists specifically, are going to have to answer for their past usage of the word 'faggot,' much like the Grandfathers who are ashamed that they used the word 'nigger' as kids. At a time when public acceptance of gay rights is soaring (rightfully), hip-hop culture and general are still battling with homophobia (not excluding myself). Rather than run from it I chose to attack it playfully. Those lyrics are meant to make everyone uncomfortable for the sake of this very conversation.")

Backstage at iHeartRadio, it's time to go. Given Cole's level of confidence, it seems fitting that he be his own judge, so I ask the 28-year-old to think back across his own catalog and identify his three favorite verses. "Ooh, that's hard," he exclaims. "'Villematic,' just all the way through, 'Looking for Trouble' and 'Too Deep for the Intro,' first or second verse."

"Villematic" is a mixtape cut that features Cole rapping over the beat to West's "Devil in a New Dress," "Looking for Trouble" is a song West produced, raps on and released. "Too Deep for Intro," though, is Cole's own.

Loading Slideshow...
  • Celebrity Photos: June 2014

    Lady Gaga rocked some 80's style while leaving her apartment building in New York City on June 6.

  • Celebrity Photos: June 2014

    Eva Longoria and Felicity Huffman had a little "Desperate Housewives" reunion at the AFI Life Achievement Award: A Tribute To Jane Fonda at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, California on June 5.

  • Celebrity Photos: June 2014

    Lindsay Lohan was seen at Chiltern Firehouse in London on June 5.

  • Celebrity Photos: June 2014

    Scott Disick attended the 2014 FIFA World Cup McDonald's launch party at Pillars 38 on June 5 in New York City.

  • Celebrity Photos: June 2014

    Lena Dunham was seen rocking a "No Comment" sweater while out and about in New York City on June 5.

  • Celebrity Photos: June 2014

    Hilary Duff was all smiles as she ran errands on June 5 in Beverly Hills, California.

  • Celebrity Photos: June 2014

    Channing Tatum has some fun at the "22 Jump Street" premiere at AMC Lincoln Square Theater on June 4 in New York City.

  • Celebrity Photos: June 2014

    Nicole Kidman and Keith Urban attended the 2014 CMT Music Awards at the Bridgestone Arena on June 4 in Nashville, Tennessee.

  • Celebrity Photos: June 2014

    Carrie Underwood attended the 2014 CMT Music Awards at the Bridgestone Arena on June 4 in Nashville, Tennessee.

  • Celebrity Photos: June 2014

    Kendall and Kylie Jenner were seen stepping out in New York City on June 4.

  • Celebrity Photos: June 2014

    Bradley Cooper got whipped into shape by military personnel while filming scenes for his upcoming movie "American Sniper" in Los Angeles, California on June 4.

  • Celebrity Photos: June 2014

    Sarah Jessica Parker went for a walk on June 4 in New York City.

  • Celebrity Photos: June 2014

    Emma Roberts and Evan Peters enjoyed a romantic stroll on the beach together while vacationing in Maui, Hawaii on June 3.

  • Celebrity Photos: June 2014

    Kim Kardashian stopped by Craig's in West Hollywood, California to have lunch with her mom Kris Jenner on June 3.

  • Celebrity Photos: June 2014

    Taylor Schilling attended the Glamour Women of the Year Awards at Berkeley Square Gardens on June 3 in London, England.

  • Celebrity Photos: June 2014

    Miranda Lambert stopped by ABC studios for an appearance on "Good Morning America" in New York Cit on June 3.

  • Celebrity Photos: June 2014

    Angelina Jolie attended the "Maleficent" photo call at The Bund on June 3 in Shanghai, China.

  • Celebrity Photos: June 2014

    John Mayer enjoyed dinner out at Madeo Restaurant on June 2 in West Hollywood, California.

  • Celebrity Photos: June 2014

    Blake Lively left her hotel with designer Michael Kors and headed to the 2014 CDFA Awards on June 2 in New York City.

  • Celebrity Photos: June 2014

    Gwen Stefani spotted leaving a skin care clinic while out and about in Beverly Hills, California on June 2.

  • Celebrity Photos: June 2014

    Katie Holmes spotted picking up Jergens Natural Glow Daily Moisturizer in New York City on June 2.

  • Celebrity Photos: June 2014

    Pete Wentz took a test drive of the new Mario Kart 8 for Wii U in Los Angeles, California on June 2.

  • Celebrity Photos: June 2014

    Halle Berry attended the Huading Film Awards on June 1 at Ricardo Montalban Theatre in Los Angeles, California.

  • Celebrity Photos: June 2014

    Kim Kardashian was seen at LAX on June 1 in Los Angeles, California.

  • Celebrity Photos: June 2014

    Shailene Woodley was seen leaving the Bowery Hotel in New York City on June 1.

  • Celebrity Photos: June 2014

    Marion Cotillard spotted out and about with a friend in New York City on June 1.

  • Celebrity Photos: May 2014

    Khloe Kardashian chatted away on her cell phone as she arrived on a red eye flight at JFK airport in New York on May 31.

  • Celebrity Photos: May 2014

    Naomi Watts headed to the gym for a morning workout on May 30 in Brentwood, California

  • Celebrity Photos: May 2014

    Jane Lynch signed copies of her book "Marlene, Marlene, Queen of Mean" at the 2014 Bookexpo America at The Jacob K. Javits Convention Center on May 29 in New York City.

  • Celebrity Photos: May 2014

    Taylor Schilling, Jason Biggs and Laura Prepon attended a photo call to launch season 2 of Netflix exclusive series "Orange Is The New Black" on May 29 in London.

  • Celebrity Photos: May 2014

    Peter Facinelli and Jaimie Alexander shared a kiss after their work out at a gym in West Hollywood, California on May 29.

  • Celebrity Photos: May 2014

    Mariah Carey at the 2014 Fresh Air Fund Honoring Our American Hero at Pier Sixty in New York City on May 29.

  • Celebrity Photos: May 2014

    Farrah Abraham spotted posing for cameras in New York City on May 29.

  • Celebrity Photos: May 2014

    Prince William and Kate Middleton visited Strathearn Community Campus in Crieff, Scotland on May 29.

  • Celebrity Photos: May 2014

    "The Bachelorette" Season 1 couple Trista and Ryan Sutter stopped to pose for the cameras while out and about in New York City on May 29.

  • Celebrity Photos: May 2014

    Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt at the Los Angeles premiere of "Maleficent" at the El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood, California on May 28.

  • Celebrity Photos: May 2014

    Chris Martin and his band Coldplay perform live at the Casino de Paris on May 28 in Paris.

  • Celebrity Photos: May 2014

    Hilary Duff stopped by a nail salon in Los Angeles, California on May 28.

  • Celebrity Photos: May 2014

    Scott Disick spotted out and about with a friend in New York City on May 28.

  • Celebrity Photos: May 2014

    Emily Blunt attended the premiere of "Edge Of Tomorrow" on May 28 in London.

  • Celebrity Photos: May 2014

    Nina Dobrev wowed at the World Music Awards 2014 at Sporting Monte-Carlo on May 27.

  • Celebrity Photos: May 2014

    Kristen Stewart departed on a flight at LAX airport in Los Angeles, California with her bodyguard on May 27.

  • Celebrity Photos: May 2014

    Amanda Seyfried, Charlize Theron and Seth MacFarlane attended a photo call to promote "A Million Ways To Die In The West" on May 27 in London, England.

  • Celebrity Photos: May 2014

    Jennifer Garner met a friend for lunch at Larchmont Bungalow in Los Angeles, California on May 27.

  • Celebrity Photos: May 2014

    Tom Cruise attended "Edge Of Tomorrow" photocall at Terrazza Civita on May 27 in Rome, Italy.

  • Celebrity Photos: May 2014

    Kaley Cuoco and her husband Ryan Sweeting attended Joel Silver's Annual Memorial Day Party at his home in Malibu, California on May 26.

  • Celebrity Photos: May 2014

    Kris Jenner and baby North West left Florence Airport after Kim Kardashian And Kanye West's wedding on May 25 in Florence, Italy.

  • Celebrity Photos: May 2014

    Emma Watson, in a cap and gown, attending Brown University’s 2014 Graduation Ceremony in Providence, Rhode Island on May 25.

  • Celebrity Photos: May 2014

    Eva Longoria had a busy morning in Los Angeles, California on May 25.

  • Celebrity Photos: May 2014

    Iggy Azalea arrived at The Bank nightclub at the Bellagio on May 24 in Las Vegas, Nevada.

  • Celebrity Photos: May 2014

    Supermodel Hilary Rhoda and her fiance former "DWTS" contestant Sean Avery celebrated Memorial Day with Tequila Don Julio cocktails from the Airstream speakeasy in the Hampton's on May 24.