Unfazed by the sales showdown between himself and Kanye West – “I’mma drop the album the same day as Kanye/ Just to show the boy’s the man now like Wanyá” – J. Cole hits listeners off with new album Born Sinner. With much hype surrounding Cole’s major label sophomore release, the bar appears to have been set very high with this brave, bold, and at times controversially beautiful journey of self-exploration mirroring that of a musical confessional.
Helping to usher in a new wave of lyricists and beat makers, Jermaine Cole has had one hell of a ride thus far. Alongside the likes of Kendrick Lamar, Mac Miller and Joey Bada$$, he’s part responsible for educating today’s commercial listener on what some would consider authentic Hip-Hop. However it’s not always been an easy ride for the young spitter from North Carolina. During the preparation stages of debut album Cole World even his record label [Roc Nation] questioned his capabilities as far as selling records. Proving them wrong in dramatic fashion – “Wanted to drop the album in the summer/ But the label didn’t think that they could sell it/ Recoup the first week, I think it ain’t shit they can tell us.” – there’s no time anymore for second guessing Hollywood Cole.
Opening with “Villuminati”, if Will Smith’s character from Bad Boys (Mike Lowrey) bore witness to it, his words would probably go something along the lines of, “Now that’s how you open an album! From now on that’s how you open an album!” With a few home truths relating to his relationship with boss Jay-Z, illuminati talk and a 2Pac theme – the song even references political playwright Niccolo Machiavelli whom ‘Pac studied at great length in prison before adopting a similar name for his final album – it has everything. Lyrically engaging content, flow for days, a beat that’ll leave your head bopping way past the end of the record, and let’s not forget the quotable Biggie sample for good measure. Perfection isn’t a word tossed around too often, but Cole’s introductory track is exactly that.
Following a cohesive line of sight that appears to be inspired by some of Cole’s questionable decisions over the years, his honesty throughout leaves you connecting with his everyday struggle, whether it be past or present. His analysis of the hardships experienced in a relationship on “Runaway” is something many fellas will be able to relate to. Then opening up about his experiences dodging many of life’s distractions on “LAnd Of The Snakes”, with its dope sample of Outkast’s “Da Art Of Storytellin’ (Part 1)”, gives you an insight in to what Cole has learnt on his way to the top [by way of L.A.].
While it may be a continuation of his Warm Up mixtape cut “Dreams”, due to its positioning on the album the Miguel assisted “Power Trip” makes you question whether or not the object of his affection is the same female mentioned on “LAnd Of The Snakes”. Regardless of if it is or isn’t, as a listener you’re given the choice to decipher the inner workings of Cole. The way in which the tracklisting on Born Sinner flows effortlessly [with a sense of fictional prominence] is one of the contributing factors to its rewind value.
United on all fronts, the J. Cole and Kendrick Lamar pairing on “Forbidden Fruit” is one that further cements their working relationship as potentially one of our generation’s best. Spitting over the top of A Tribe Called Quest’s “Electric Relaxation”, with a tweak here and there, the modern day take on the story of Adam and Eve with a twist is undeniably catchy. On hook duty, the only thing missing is an actual verse from Kendrick.
Feeling like he’s committed a rap cardinal sin by disappointing his lyrical idol, “Let Nas Down” hears Cole pay homage to the Queensbridge legend while also admitting to letting him down after the release of his debut single “Work Out”. With sincere bars that show Cole isn’t too proud to bypass the machoism heralded by many as the foundation upon which Hip-Hop was built, he gushes over his idol.
“I used to print out Nas raps and tape ’em up on my wall/ My niggas thought they was words, but it was pictures I saw/ And since I wanted to draw, I used to read ’em in awe/ Then he dropped Stillmatic, rocked the cleanest velour.”
However, choosing not to be another fan boy, Cole packs a full clip of bravery bullets and even checks Nas by spitting, “I couldn’t help but think that maybe I had made a mistake/ I mean, you made “You Owe Me” dog, I thought that you could relate/ But while I shot up the charts, you mean tellin’ me/ That I was not up to par, when I followed my heart.” As one of the most important moments on Born Sinner, the fact that he can give constructive criticism on a track that opens the backstage doors in to a vulnerable mindset – something not witnessed too often in Hip-Hop – further proves that J. Cole’s step up from College ball to the pros is complete. His transformation from Nerlens Noel to Shaquille O’ Neal has been finalised.
With a tremendous amount of growth coming from Cole, not only is his lyrical content much more expansive (“Chaining Day”) and his wordplay wittier (“Rich Niggaz”), his beat making abilities have stepped outside of their comfort zone and enlisted a few synths and electric loops [that at times scream the influence of early Timbaland] that weren’t there before. Forget born sinner, J. Cole is a born winner with this body of work.
(Illustration by @WillPrinceArt)