J. Cole – Born Sinner: Album Review

June 18, 2013 § Leave a comment

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J. Cole may have been considered an underdog in the past, but the rapper grew some balls after the 2011 release of his debut album Cole World: The Sideline Story. He is stepping into the mainstream forefront, all while staying true to himself – a duality that is captured in his sophomore effort Born Sinner. A divide between heaven and hell, or indie mixtape status versus corporate label support, Cole has a serious story to tell on this album. 

The opening track, “Villuminati” is super confident and is very braggadocio – Cole is not playing games anymore. He has doubted himself before, but after a few successful hits he has all the more reason to “brag like HOV.” Hell, he pushed his release date to compete with Kanye West, whose album also dropped today.

Born Sinner has a great balance of dark and light sounds, which is displayed in the record’s first single “Power Trip” – a beautiful, albeit slightly depressing midtempo. The song, which is another amazing collaboration with R&B crooner Miguel, shows how masterful Cole’s production skills are becoming. Like his counterpart Kanye West, Cole has an ear for intricate and soulful melodies and knows how to dirty them up a bit.

The most unexpected track on the record comes courtesy of “She Knows”, which features The Dirty Projectors’ Amber Coffman and samples Cults. Once again, the production is stellar. The heavy piano paired with the floaty vocals from Coffman are completely transcendent – not to mention Cole’s surprisingly sultry musings throughout the track. 

The duality continues with “Rich Niggaz”, a track with a ’90s flair. It has a sparkling melody that provides a dream-like quality yet the lyrical tone is very conscious:

“Niggas can’t front on the flows you got. But every fucking verse how much dough you got. Homie, don’t quit now, hear my shit and try to switch now.”

It is a much-needed track during this rap era of boasting about how much money one makes. It can possibly be something Drake may have been thinking to talk about, but was too scared to go against the YMCB crew – “How much for your soul?”

Yet Cole’s self-deprecation is getting a bit tired, as shown in “Chaining Day”. (Look at me, pathetic nigga, this chain that I bought/You mix dream pain and fame/This is heinous result). He should be proud of his accomplishments, because unlike many other rappers – he has actually earned them. But is this April Fools? On “Ain’t That Some Shit”, the track right after “Chaining Day”, Cole channels his inner Jigga Man with a nasty flow and a Timbaland-esque beat that completely makes up for the downer that came before it. Too bad this is only an interlude.

“Crooked Smile” is a motivational song (and one of the few that represents the “heaven” theme on the album) that highlights one’s flaws and writes them off as beautiful. It has a type of authenticity that has been missing in rap music for a while. Rather than masking that “crooked smile” with material things like grills, J. Cole strips that all away. It’s very hopeful and very catchy, thanks to TLC’s vocals on the harmonic hook.

The track that holds the most significance on Born Sinner is the jazzy “Let Nas Down”. After Nas shot down Cole’s “Work Out”, calling it too mainstream and stating the young rapper didn’t need to sell out, Cole went back to the studio to let it all out. Nas is one of Cole’s biggest influences, so to hear him attribute this track to the rap legend is well, legendary.

While his lyrics have become stronger and his production more complex, J. Cole still remained in the mainstream realm. Born Sinner is a solid album from start to finish, but don’t expect anything superbly groundbreaking here – it is a commercial, radio-friendly record. But commercial is not always a bad thing. Some of Pop music’s all stars have made frighteningly commercial records which became some of the best albums in their discography (see Madonna, Britney Spears, Mariah Carey). Remember J. Cole is still young in the industry, so as he continues to develop his style there is bound to be more rule-breaking.

Overall Rating: 3.6/5

Songs on Repeat

“Power Trip”

“She Knows”

“Rich Niggaz”

Songs to Skip

“LAnd of the Snakes”

“Runaway”

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