J. Cole entered into Hip Hop’s consciousness at a time when the genre was desperately looking for a new voice and persona to fill the “every-man” role. A spot formally filled by Kanye West, who then recently traded in his Polo shirts for the now iconic shutter shades and started paving his way to become rap’s Michael Jackson. Lil Wayne was assaulting the internet with what seemed like a new freestyle every day, putting every other MC’s beats in a drugged out choke hold. Rap’s mega-gods were comfortably settling into elder-statesmanship. The stage was set for a baby-faced MC, backed by a Hip Hop icon, with a penchant for melody, an adaptable flow and commercial appeal to tell relatable stories of relationships, heart break, failure and success. Unfortunately for Cole, that MC turned out to be a former child actor from Canada named Drake.
This unintentional one-upmanship by the Toronto native seems to have cast a shadow over J. Cole’s music since day one. J. Cole is no doubt a considerable star in his own right. Cole boasts a gold plaque for his debut album “Cole World: The Sideline Story”, a platinum plaque for the leading single “Work Out”, respect from his peers and a fanatically loyal fan base. However, Cole never seems to be at ease playing the heartthrob as eagerly as Drake does. His music never invites the drama and creativity of Kendrick Lamar.
Regardless, J. Cole’s workman like approach to similes, metaphors and a raspy Nas-inspired flow is commendable (“Mo Money”). Similarly, his attention to detail in his production, including picking the right samples and structuring soaring melody (“She Knowz”) makes him one of the best beat makers in the game. While he’s not a virtuoso at either, the culmination of these two should guarantee a top spot with his peers. However, J. Cole is not satisfied. Born Sinner is Cole’s melancholy sophomore album that is based upon his sense of bewilderment and depression he experienced prior to his debut album. Sonically Cole sets the mood with ominous bass lines and brooding beats, laying the foundation for something “way darker this time” as he puts it on the introduction track “Villuminati”. At its best, “Born Sinner” is a snarling yet contemplative grab for legitimacy best personified by the aforementioned “Villuminati”. This is the closest you’ll get to Cole giving you Timberland and hoody rap. Here he injects sharp defiant yet lyricism like “I studied Machiavelli/You niggas couldn't blow with C4 strapped to your belly/I snuck up out the parks where niggas be living heartless /And cannot tell the difference between Iraqi, Israeli”. However, he still finds time to add a bit of social commentary regarding the racial under tones of constant silly Illuminati rumors. This is Cole at his best, wordplay and lyricism at ease with the track. Dope beats with classic Hip Hop references but not reliant on them.
At its worst Born Sinner is all lead up without a satisfying conclusion. It’s a great novel with the last forty pages missing. Take for example the song “Trouble." This is the kind of J. Cole song that he has become known for. The beat sounds like it should induce sweaty palms and uneasy stomachs. It’s an excellently crafted track that boasts a chorus by a church choir warning that “Trouble’s coming!." It’s all dark clouds and thunderous skies. However, lyrically Cole doesn’t add much to the party. The lyrics are half braggadocio and halfhearted proclamations about groupies. Bars like “know allot of niggas, that’ll marry your type/ bad bitch with a degree I’ll let em’ scoop ya/ I’m Koopa, I never been the Mario type” are more groan inducing than anything else. This is not because Hip Hop listeners are anti-humor or even anti misogyny, but because Cole has lead us to believe he can deliver a powerful punch on a powerful track but rather gives us lame video game jokes.
Although Cole is eager to deliver on his lofty ambitions he rarely hits the mark. Born Sinner finds Cole not only competing with his peers to make his “serious” album, but he digs deep in the crates to find inspiration from the legends. Cole has always been the type of artist to wear his inspirations on his sleeve but here, they’re on full display, making Cole sound more desperate than motivated. Cole samples Outkast’s classic “Da Art of Storytellin’ (Pt. 1)” for the cautionary “Land of the Snakes." An admirable attempt at religious metaphors and clever lyricism, but it sounds so much like the original it’s hard to find anything on here better then Outkast has already done with the track. Similarly, Cole samples Acid Jazz artist Ronnie Foster’s “Mystic Brew” for the track “Forbidden Fruit." The same flip A Tribe Called Quest utilized for their undisputed classic “Electric Relaxation." Kendrick Lamar comes along for the ride, contributing a chorus about sex, sin and love. This would be an album highlight if you don’t already immediately start reciting Phife Dog’s verse over Cole’s. “Chaining Day” is for better or worse a Kanye West track circa College Dropout/Late Registration years, right down to the self-deprecating lyrics concerning materialism, airy soul beat and sing along chorus.
All of this culminates into the pinnacle of the album “Let Nas Down." The opening stanza is a classic Nas line, which blends seamlessly into J. Cole’s voice. This is a moment that metaphorically is meant to represent the passing of the torch from one poet to another. Over the jazz-sampled track Cole painstakingly recounts being heartbroken about Nas not enjoying one of his more commercially viable tracks. Each verse is expertly written, an exercise in how to build tension and drama. The problem here is the drama here is melodramatic. A song about a rapper not liking your raps doesn’t seem that life altering (easy for me to say), yet it’s treated with the delicacy of a death of a loved one. Additionally, this is Cole (maybe intentionally) making a song about Nas, which sounds like a song Nas would make (let that one sink in). Regardless this shows two things: one, Cole is a talented MC and songwriter and two, he may not have that much to write about yet, which seems to be the theme running through the entire Born Sinner is not a bad album in any way. Cole has improved lyrically as well as behind the boards. He is keenly aware that his peers, Drake and Kendrick Lamar easily exude emotion and creativity with each release and this album is an attempt to not get left behind. You can almost picture him studying Tupac, Biggie, Kanye, Nas and Jay-z albums in attempts to create a classic. Here, Cole name drops Hov, Nas, Kanye, DMX, Biggie in a flurry that would make Game proud. All great artists are usually inspired by their idols. However, no one ever became great by fetishizing their heros. J. Cole has crafted an album so he can keep up with the Grahams and Lamar’s of the rap world by channeling the Carters and the Joneses. But, first it would be beneficial for him to find out exactly what Cole has to say.