Artist: J. Cole
Album: Born Sinner
Label: Roc Nation/Columbia
Release Date: June 18, 2013
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: “No I.D. my mentor, now let the story begin.” When did J. Cole become such an insecure sycophant?
“Let Nas Down” is everything that is wrong with Born Sinner in a nutshell. Cribbing more than a few pages from Kanye’s “Big Brother,” J. Cole attempts to spawn an inspirational record centered around how he was butt-hurt when he heard it through the grapevine that Nas wasn’t feeling his 2011 single, “Work Out.”
Whereas “Big Brother” exhibited ‘Ye showing genuine gratitude for one of his actual mentors, Jay-Z, “Let Nas Down” comes off as some kind of passive-aggressive billet-doux for Esco. J. Cole has never collaborated with Nas and as far as we know, the two have never shared a single molecule of oxygen aside from performing on the same stage at 2012’s Rock The Bells Festival. The track which features a fitting wailing sax sample is sonically sound, but the overall concept of the record seems forced.
Born Sinner was conceptualized by Cole to reflect some sort of inner Cain & Abelian duel between good and evil. Instead, it plays out as a conflicted struggle of sonic ideas. Some good, some bad and a noxious amount of melodrama permeates throughout Jermaine Cole’s sophomore effort.
“Villuminati,” the album’s intro track, is a testament to that disharmony. The dark and bombastic instrumental contains a lot of the production values that we grew accustomed to from Cole on his debut Cole World: The Sideline Story: Booming drums, dramatic strings, and faint yet impactful choirs.
“Sometimes I brag like Hov / Sometimes I’m real like Pac,” raps a modest Cole. This excessive and misguided name-dropping riddles the entire project. Whether it’s Big, Nas, Pac, Kanye, or Jay, Cole consistently feels the need for unnecessary shout-outs like this is some kind of Jayceon Taylor Tribute album.
Then midway through the first verse, this happens: “My verbal AK slay f*ggots/ And I don’t mean no disrespect whenever I say f*ggot, okay f*ggot / Don’t be so sensitive If you want to get f**ked in the ass / That’s between you and whoever else’s d*ck it is.”
Random and unapologetic homophobia from one of rap’s more conscious artists? You’d think Cole would be more self-aware.
But the first real “What the f*ck?” moment on Born Sinner takes place three tracks in on “LAnd Of The Snakes.” Cole spits over a sample of Outkast’s legendary “Da Art Of Storytellin’ Pt. 1” with minimal adjustments to the instrumental.
For a new artist trying to garner buzz with his first radio single, this would be a permissible. For Cole, someone who touts himself as a hybrid producer-rapper of the Kanye lineage, it’s a lazy and juvenile maneuever that no rapper should be making two albums in.
On the flipside, the standout moment of Born Sinner also involves a familiar hip-hop sample. “Forbidden Fruit,” Cole’s anticipated collaboration with Kendrick Lamar lives up to its billing, as Cole shrewdly and effectively flips Ronnie Foster’s “Mystic Brew,” the same record used for A Tribe Called Quest’s classic, “Electric Relaxation.” In perhaps the most positive takeaway from the album, “Forbidden Fruit” displays the effortless synergy that exists between Kendrick and Cole, providing exceeding promise for the potential of the long-rumored collaboration project between the two.
Born Sinner isn’t a bad album. It just falls significantly short of the lustrous passion project Cole hyped it up to be. Way short.
A majority of the tracks on the album seem ineffably hollow, with the bulk of the more impassioned production suspiciously reserved for the four skits and interludes. The whole project sounds like it was vastly over-thought with the inevitable result being a pathos-laden snoozer.
Maybe we gave J. Cole too much credit. Maybe our expectations were too high. Maybe he peaked early. One thing’s for sure though: Two albums into his young career he’s not progressing. Cole isn’t so much hustling backwards as he’s tarrying in creative purgatory, still opting for painstakingly conservative approaches to his records.
Being conservative is fine if Cole stayed true and committed to his sound like he did on Sideline Story and Friday Night Lights. For whatever reason, he’s pressing on Born Sinner. Cole doesn’t need calculated machinations on his album like a fake-deep concept, samples of classic hip-hop records, or shout outs to legends on his track titles.
Sometimes he brags like Hov. Sometimes he lets Nas down. Somewhere in between all that, Jermaine Cole lost touch with what made him an intriguing artist and felt the need to start reaching for gimmicks. And what a sin that is.