The savior of hip-hop, Jay-Z’s prodigy, overrated. Since becoming the inaugural signee to Jay-Z’s Roc Nation label in 2009, J. Cole has been called many things; most, but not all, identify him as one of the driving forces in a new era of hip-hop. And as Cole blew up, the expectations for his debut album grew to, perhaps, an unattainable level. Still, with two critically acclaimed mix-tapes under his belt, it was not outrageous to say that Cole World: The Sideline Story was far from his best work. Although solid as a whole, it seemed as though it was a rushed smorgasbord of unrelated songs.
Less than a year later, expectations again abounded as Cole crafted his sophomore effort, Born Sinner. This time, Cole assured us that it was his best work yet. How confident was he in this project? Confident enough to move the album’s release date up a week to compete with the release of Yeezus. But was it a smart move?
Unlike his debut album, Born Sinner proves to be a cohesive, logically progressing work, flowing from hell to heaven, dark to light, or more personally, from Cole's self-described depression to a newfound happiness. The first line on the album is also the last. “I’m a born sinner, but I die better than that”, which summarizes the album perfectly. We’re all born sinners, yet we all have the ability to become more saintly as our lives progress. J. Cole personalizes this theme as he attempts to better himself over the course of the 16-track offering, paralleling his struggle to make music true to his heart, in light of industry pressures that call for mainstream sales. Ultimately, this album not only works as a coherent narrative of sin and repentance, but also as a testament to Cole’s versatility as an artist. He reminds us of this in the dark opening to the album, “Villuminati”, as he raps, “Sometimes I brag like Hov, sometimes I’m real like Pac, sometimes I focus on the flow to show the skills I got, sometimes I focus on the dough, look at these bills I got.”
“Trouble” is easily the darkest track on the album. Trouble does surround Cole as he questions the intentions of those around him, specifically women, while attempting to avoid the temptations that come with fame. His production matches this idea as devilish-sounding horn and piano melodies accompany an equally devilish-sounding choir backing. It ironically juxtaposes the thought of a church choir as being saintly. This song marks a significant improvement in the complexity and depth of Cole’s production. Not to mention, the hook is extremely catchy.
“Runaway," marks a change in the album’s tone as Cole begins to consciously contemplate the issues that have come with his fame in an attempt to do what is right. In “She Knows," he sings, “Damned if I do, damned if I don’t, I’m passing up on bad h*es, trying to be the man that she want," as he describes his attempt to make his relationship, assumedly with his girlfriend Melissa, work despite the temptations of women everywhere he goes. In “Rich Niggaz,” he bashes those who are in the rap game simply for monetary purposes, while he assures his fans that he will not follow down this same path.
The final installment of the album is perhaps the strongest portion. “Forbidden Fruit,” featuring Kendrick Lamar, (although disappointingly does not include a K-dot verse) and “Chaining Day”, introduce a lighter sonic to the previously gloomy work. These songs, in particular, showcase Cole’s ability to subtly use wordplay, which, in my opinion, is more effective than the in-your-face punch-lines of rappers such as the “new” Lil Wayne.
The album’s second single, “Crooked Smile”, contains an inspirational message for women as Cole evokes the spirit of his favorite artist, 2Pac, in a “Keep Ya Head Up” type of moment. In addition to the album’s first single, “Power Trip," it’s refreshing to see that Cole finally solved the puzzle of creating radio songs that also contain substance.
Since word surfaced a few weeks ago that a song outlining Nas’ disappointment over Cole World’s “Work Out” would be appearing on the album, I anxiously awaited my chance to listen. The song, ultimately titled “Let Nas Down," is easily one of the three best songs on the album. Not only does the saxophone and bass guitar-backed beat force you to nod your head, but the story is also as personal as it gets. “Damn, my heart sank to my stomach, I can’t believe I let Nas down," the North Carolina MC raps. But continuing with the theme of the album, Cole is able to put this disappointment behind him, saying “f*ck it” as he provides a very legitimate justification for his creation of “Work Out." “I always believed in the bigger picture. If I could get them n*ggas to listen outside my core then I can open a door. Reintroduce ‘em to honesty, show ‘em that they need more the difference between the pretenders and the Kendrick Lamars.” Cole wants people to realize that “Work Out” was simply an attempt to gain the attention of a mainstream audience that may not have noticed him otherwise so that they would then listen to his entire body of meaningful, socially conscious and artful work. How did Nas receive this song? According to J. Cole, very well.
The album closes with the title track, featuring the soulful voice of James Fauntleroy, as Cole concludes his musical self-help session with the realization that he has the ability to live a better life despite his past sins.
It’s also worth noting that the bonus tracks, comprising the final installment of the Truly Yours trilogy, are definitely worth a listen.
But as Cole said, Born Sinner “was never born to be perfect” and the album isn’t without its faults. There’s nothing really innovative or memorable from a musical and production point of view, a sentiment emphasized by the simultaneous release of the experiment that is Yeezus. Also, between songs like “Land of the Snakes," “Runaway," “She Knows” and “Forbidden Fruit”, some of Cole’s subject matter can become stale. It’s difficult to listen to someone who’s had a girlfriend since freshman year of college continue to talk about different women as much as he does. And although Cole is an outstanding storyteller, his narratives lack a certain depth in comparison to, say, Kendrick Lamar. Cole’s insecurities are also evident throughout the album. Not that this is a bad thing, but it’s slightly uncomfortable to hear him remark that some would, “kill themselves if they had Cole money," while at others times being as braggadocious as Mr. West himself. Even so, Born Sinner proves to be an exceptional hip-hop album and could certainly find itself in the running for a Grammy.
How will Born Sinner compare with Yeezus? Only time will tell. Some will again be dissatisfied by his sophomore effort and there’s undoubtedly room for improvement. But if there weren’t, what would be the point of continuing?