Beauty and the Best

J. Cole

J. Cole's "Born Sinner" Is Good, But Not Great

J. Cole certainly seems to be in an enviable position in the current realm of hip-hop. He’s proven on releases like The Warm Up, his outstanding 2006 mixtape, that he has the chops to go bar for lyrical bar with some of the upper echelon rhymers in the game. Furthermore, he’s slated to release a collaborative album with rap’s favorite godson, Kendrick Lamar. And now, he shows that he has the stones to challenge Kanye West by releasing his album (which has a song boldly titled “Runaway” ) on the same day “just to show the boy’s the man now like Wanya”. So it’s not unreasonable to muse that with some good music Cole could rise to be hip-hop’s next obsession; however, despite proclaiming himself the “man,” J. Cole hasn’t really grown up much at all. He’s still rapping about the struggle of being a light skinned rapper and his obsession with fucking everything that smiles at him. Worst of all his music is, as always, so very safe. J. Cole showed the world that he’s capable of being a top tier rapper, but Born Sinner is not the incredible album J. Cole needs. It boasts only a few standout tracks, and while it’s still a better album than Cole World in every way, it has several flaws, the most glaring of which is that it continually taunts us with J. Cole’s obvious talent, but it refuses to ever display it for longer than just a few bars.

The album opens with immediate highlight “Villuminati,” sporting the best real beat on the album: a murky atmosphere layered with sharp drums and a “Juicy” sample. J. Cole “brag[s] like Hov” with some of his most cohesive rhyme schemes and effortless flow to date, and despite some left field homophobia (“Just a little joke to show you how homophobic you are /and who can blame you” ), “Villuminati” comes out as a great start to an album that slowly falls off. Lyrically, J. Cole has stepped his game up in several respects. One of his greatest liabilities in the past was that his rhyme schemes were far too basic to be interesting, and he made up for that by having exciting storytelling (“Lost Ones,” “Dollar and a Dream” ) and lively content in his raps. But on Born Sinner, his lyrics are much the opposite and his content quickly becomes tiresome. Nevertheless, J. Cole weaves his rhymes much more cleverly into his music, working them into quick and fluent flows so that they sound incredible and don’t seem as basic as they really are (the “Rich Niggaz” couplets of “I took a trip down memory lane/ And watching little Jermaine do his thang before he made a name” and “Probably kill for another claim to fame, my brain the same/ Yeah nigga, at least he ain’t insane” are examples of this) It’s these flashes of musical brilliance that give us hope, but they are so few and far between that they can’t make up for some of the poor decisions he makes. 

In terms of beat selection, for the most part they are on point. The foggy synths of “Trouble” flow through a grandiose choral sample as Cole again makes the most of his simple rhyme schemes (“Gettin’ to the Promised Land, you don’t want problems, I promise man” ). There are a few missteps in terms of beats: “She Knows,” “Chaining Day,” and “Crooked Smile” – which is the most insipid song on the album (still an empowering message) – are all monotonous beats. But the worst decision J. Cole made was choosing to use the classic
Outkast and A Tribe Called Quest beats of “Da Art of Storytellin Pt. I” and “Electric Relaxation”; it’s cool that Jay-Z shelled out for the beats but the fundamental issue with getting these tracks is that Born Sinner isn’t a mixtape; the appeal of spitting over classic beats on a mixtape is evident: you want to showcase your skills and give listeners something that they know as the backdrop for your lyrics, but to use the beats on an official album says that you want your iteration of the song to challenge the original, and J. Cole’s songs are not even close to strong enough to even get in the ring. Essentially, J. Cole’s selection of those beats automatically means that two songs on the album are completely forgettable (furthermore, Kendrick Lamar, who doesn’t even have a verse on “Forbidden Fruit” still resonates thanks to his incredible gift for hooks). Ultimately, Born Sinner is simply a good album; there are a few standout tracks and the desire to recreate Take Care via darker tones and obsession with his sexual conquests becomes tedious after a while, but fortunately, where Cole World had an abundance of daft lines in each song (“I love it when you give me heeeeeeead, I hate it when you give me headaches” ), Born Sinner is tightened up lyrically, and when J. Cole is rapping for real (“Villuminati”, “Rich Niggaz”, “Ain’t That Some Shit”, even “Let Nas Down” despite the theme of the song being corny by nature), he gives us every reason to keep believing in him. Maybe his next album will deliver on the expectations, but Born Sinner isn’t the “real” hip-hop that everyone has been clamoring for; it’s just a great mainstream album that caters to everyone who isn’t going to buy Yeezus.

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