For his second album, J. Cole presents a self confident man who believes he’s a front runner in the hip-hop game. There are a lot of new artists pushing out a lot of high caliber work, with two of the most successful being Kendrick Lamar and A$AP Rocky. For Cole it was thus important to deliver an album that cemented his position at the top. He isn’t just competing with his peers, but also his elders, notably Kanye West. He pushed back the release of Born Sinner to coincide with Kanye’s release of Yeezus, something addressed in ‘‘Forbidden Fruit’‘. He also addressed the change in release date in a Billboard interview, saying “I worked too hard to come a week later after Kanye West drops an amazing album. It’d be like, ‘Oh and J.Cole dropped too, a week later’.” Yeezus ended up selling approximately 30,000 copies more than Cole’s Born Sinner; for an artist who would not consider himself a household name in the music industry, that’s certainly not a bad feat.
J. Cole opens Born Sinner saying “Sometimes I brag like Hov, sometimes i’m real like Pac”, which sets a precedent for what we should expect from the album. He embodies various different styles and attitudes, from this incredibly confident man who’s willing to compete with Kanye West, to an artist who is an expert and often touching storyteller. This can be seen in one of the standout songs, ‘‘Let Nas Down’‘, where we hear Cole rap of his love for Nas, saying from a young age he used to “print out Nas raps and tape them up on my wall”. This admiration is followed by his disappointment on hearing that Nas hated his single ‘‘Work Out’‘. It’s a very personal, touching song, which allows us to see another element of Cole. For all the talk artists give of wanting to be the best, and be legendary, everyone has mentors and idols that they look up to and want to impress.
The first single off the album, ‘‘Power Trip’‘, is a collaboration between J. Cole and the R&B crooner Miguel and it’s one of the catchiest songs on the album. Interestingly, it’s a song that wouldn’t go amiss at all on Cole’s first album and is very similar in style to ‘‘Work Out’‘, showing that Cole is still sticking to what he knows best regardless of whether Nas likes it or not. The second single, and another standout song on the album, “Crooked Smile’’ features TLC minus Left Eye and shows J. Cole embracing his own supposed flaws, rapping, “I got smart, I got rich, and I got bitches still / And they all look like my eyebrows: thick as hell.” He also encourages others to accept themselves and not try and conform to what society wants, saying, “Cause what’s real is something that the eyes can’t see / That the hands can’t touch, that them broads can’t be, and that’s you.”
Other notable songs include ‘‘Rich Niggaz’‘, which slows the pace of the album down; ‘‘She Knows’‘, which is fantastically catchy and features Amber Coffman from Dirty Projectors; and the dark sounding ‘‘Forbidden Fruit’‘, which features Kendrick Lamar, a good friend of Cole’s. The only possible disappointment that comes with ‘‘Forbidden Fruit’’ is that Lamar doesn’t appear enough. His presence is limited to the hook and—considering they have a joint album on the way—it would have been nice to see the two working together equally. However, it’s a minor qualm and J. Cole carries the song nicely.
The album certainly isn’t flawless and there are a few songs which disrupt the fluidity and cause the album to feel a little heavy and laborious. ‘‘Land of the Snakes’’ and ‘‘Trouble’’ are two of the weaker songs and for some, the skits and interludes that are dotted throughout the album can create a jerky feel to the album. Yet for others they can work perfectly in helping create new depths and feels to the album in a way that’s reminiscent of Kanye’s The College Dropout.
It’s clear that J. Cole very much respects Jay-Z, and the references to his mentor are vast throughout the album. Cole owes a lot to Jay-Z as Roc Nation’s first signing, and while showing allegiance to your team isn’t uncommon (look at YMCMB and G.O.O.D Music) it can get slightly boring and excessive. Yet for all the mention of Jay-Z and various other artists who he respects and loves in Born Sinner, it’s still very much J. Cole’s. Cole was the primary producer for the album, showing how deeply involved he was in the process. The direction of it is exactly how Cole wants it to be. Credit to him for asserting his authority in such a way and not allowing himself to be dictated by his label.
Lyrically J. Cole is one of the best around right now and this is superbly displayed on Born Sinner. While Jay Z is releasing some bizarre lyrics to his next project Magna Carta Holy Grail and Kanye is moving away from the storytelling direction of rap, J. Cole is slotting himself into the subsequent gap being opened. For many, lyrically, he’s better on a higher percentage of Born Sinner than Kendrick was on Good Kid, M.A.A.D City, but the album lacks the superb production and cohesiveness that makes GKMC standout. Still, no one can say that J. Cole has failed to deliver on this album. He’s certainly impressed with his flow, delivery and production, and while he hasn’t released the next golden hip hop album he’s coming close.