J. Cole — Born Sinner Album Review by Jay Fingers

Artist: J. Cole
Title: Born Sinner
Hood: Fayetteville, North Carolina
Genre: Hip-Hop
Label: Roc Nation / Columbia
Released: June 18, 2013
Social: Facebook Twitter Soundcloud

As the marquee artist on Jay-Z’s Roc Nation label, expectations for Fayetteville, North Carolina, artist J. Cole are super high. His debut album, the gold-selling Cole World: The Sideline Story, had a couple notable songs, but it wasn’t the instant classic many expected from the artist that gave them The Warm Up.

With an ever-increasing pool of competitors, which include Cali golden boy Kendrick Lamar and perennial fave Drake, J. Cole needs to step up his game if he wants to rise in the ranks of hip-hop’s new guard. Thus, he’s released his second LP, Born Sinner. But is Sinner a winner?

The album opens with Cole repeatedly saying, “Sometimes I brag like Hov.” It’s not the only place he drops a reference to a better-known, more talented artist, and such comparisons are actually detrimental. Yes, Cole is a very capable MC, but he has yet to match the swag and braggadocio of Jay-Z or the charismatic honesty of Tupac, as he claims to do on the Biggie sampling “Villuminati.” (Also, it must be said: there hasn’t been this much name-dropping and rap referencing on a hip-hop album since The Documentary.)

The boring “Power Trip,” featuring face-kicking R&B crooner Miguel in a blatant ploy for radio play, and the pedestrian “She Knows” are both snoozes.

But fear not—Born Sinner is not all bad. “Rich Niggaz” is told from the disdainful point of view of someone who has very little in terms of material wealth and is envious of those who have it. He chastises those spending “Daddy’s money” while sitting at home and worrying about his mother who’s taken a second job as a pizza delivery person. It’s reflective and resentful at the same time, and it’s quietly powerful.

The silky, soulful lament “Chaining Day” finds our protagonist reveling in his newly acquired riches: “I wanna shine like Baby/Compared to that nigga, I ain’t even gotta bib yet/Truth be told, I ain’t even bought a crib yet.” In other words, he’s doing everything he was advised not to do after signing his recoding contract. It’s an honest look at the mindset of a kid who had nothing and finally gains everything.

A pair of the album’s best tracks recall earlier classics: “Land of the Snakes” cribs wholesale from Outkast‘s “Da Art of Storytelling, Part 1” and “Forbidden Fruit” is an “Electric Relaxation” redux. It’s interesting to note that “Fruit” guest star Kendrick Lamar is relegated to the background, only performing the hook. It seems a clear case of Cole not wanting to be outshined on his own disc. (Jermaine does get props, however, for stating his intention to drop Born Sinner on the same day as Kanye West‘s Yeezus, an acknowledgement that he has to go up against the greats if he wants to be ranked among them.)

Yet the jazzy “Let Nas Down” is probably the album’s most honest and revelatory song. It’s an examination of how Cole felt upon learning that the veteran MC was, uh, less than enthusiastic about his hit “Work Out.” Not only that, it’s also a not-so-subtle critique of music industry machinations: “Where’s the hits?/You ain’t got none/You know Jay’ll never put your album out without one/And, dawg, you know how come/Labels are archaic/Formulaic with their outcomes.”

But here’s what’s frustrating. J. Cole is certainly a talented artist—both with the pen and behind the boards—but there’s very little innovation here. It’s as if he’s going through the motions, crafting those hit singles (like the TLC-assisted “Crooked Smile,” which is dope, if a bit saccharine) that will force the label to release his album.

Born Sinner is like comfort food; sure, it’s familiar and good in the moment, but there’s nothing truly mind-blowing or groundbreaking here. We’ve pretty much heard it before. That’s unsurprising when you learn that songs that didn’t make Cole World were “automatically going to [be on Born Sinner],” as he told HipHopDX. C’mon, son—that’s not very innovative.

Admittedly, the album is an improvement over Cole World, but if this is the sort of rote material he’s going to put out, Cole will forever remain on the sideline.

Grade: B-

Best Tracks:

“Let Nas Down”
“Rich Niggaz”
“Chaining Day”
“Forbidden Fruit”


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