J. Cole – Born Sinner

j-cole-born-sinnerJ. Cole – Born Sinner
Roc Nation: 2013

You know the ironic sincerity of clichés? Like how you can’t take an expression seriously because of how overused it is, but there must be a reason it became so clichéd and overused in the first place, because it’s true, right? In this case, the cliché or the overused concept would be the “sophomore slump,” or an artist’s struggle to make their second official release as good or better than their first. Think movie sequels (how rare is it that a sequel bests the original film?) The sophomore slump is a dangerous make-or-break moment for a group or artist. A decade of work goes into the first album and after it’s success the label wants a follow-up album in six months. Rappers don’t quite face the same dilemma. Luckily J. Cole, who produces in addition to rapping, knows what it takes to stay relevant in the everchanging game of hip-hop. It’s more about showing people that he can do it, and he can.

He is a high caliber rapper whose new album, Born Sinner, is (semi) willingly going up against the powerhouse of money, attention, and vanity that is Kanye West’s Yeezus. Compared to the average up-and-coming rapper J. Cole is an icon, a Michael Jordan, but compared to Kanye West, J. Cole might as well be a college baller. Don’t let the previous sentence make you think that Cole doesn’t get the respect he deserves, just know that going up against Kanye West for album sales is suicide. This doesn’t seem to phase Cole, who sounds as confident as ever after the success of his first album with singles like “Work Out” and accidental singles like “Mr. Nice Watch”.

The first track is called “Villuminati”, and although I’m growing tired of the Illuminati fascination in hip-hop, this song is fucking great. Produced by Cole himself, as is the entire album with help on very few tracks, “Villuminati” has a beat that builds like Timbaland took an Ambien and tried to get a song out before he fell asleep. With similar percussion and accents that Tim favors, yet battled with a more static synthesizer and a simpler overall tone, the beat allows Cole to take center stage. A hiccup in the lyrics appears pretty quickly though: “My verbal AK slay faggots/And I don’t mean no disrespect when I say faggot/OK, faggot?/Don’t be so sensitive/If you wanna get fucked in the ass that’s between you and whoever else’s dick it is/Pause, maybe that line was too far/Just a little joke to show how homophobic you are.” By the end of the sentence a listener is inclined to let Cole off the hook for homophobia, but the fact that he needed to mention his discomfort with gay sex in the first song on his album is a bit strange. Don’t let it spoil the song, to relevantly quote the LBGT community, “It gets better.”

The smoothed out and simplified Timbaland method is also employed on the R&B collab with Miguel called “Power Trip”. The beat is about half the tempo that Timbaland usually works at, and again, the softer tone plays more emotional than a Tim track, which is certainly guided by Miguel’s crooning. Cole and Miguel are the PB&J of R&B hits after “All I Want Is You”, a fantastic track that garnered Miguel commercial notice, and the formula continues to work on “Power Trip”.

Later, who can blame J. Cole for trying out the oh-so popular trend of rappers attempting to sing? “Runaway” is the biggest go on the album for Cole’s singing career, which won’t launch anytime soon. It’s okay though, he doesn’t try too hard, and it’s just the hook. It’s nice to hear a switch from the pompous raps, particularly on the track “Rich Ni**az”. Cole raps “I hate rich ni**as, God damnit/Cuz I ain’t never had a lot damnit/Who you had to kill? Who you had to rob?/Who you had to fuck just to make it to the top damnit?/Or maybe that’s daddy money, escalator no ladder money/Worst fear going broke cuz I’m bad with money.” Wishing to climb the ladder to fame and fortune is something most listeners can relate to. It’s certain easy to relate to the envy and disdain for those who effortlessly float up the escalator of success because of some wicked and arbitrary factor that you don’t have. Sigh.

In any case, Cole did it. Born Sinner is a sophomore album that certainly does the job, yet strictly colors inside the lines. Not many risks or huge chances were taken, which is good, as there will be plenty of time for that in J. Cole’s future now that he has paved his own way. Yet, the album is not groundbreaking. While it does accurately showcase Cole’s talent as a rapper and producer, it is quite possible it will drown in the ocean of Yeezus. Alas, who cares?

3.5 out of 5

20 thoughts on “J. Cole – Born Sinner

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  1. I am a huge fan of both Cole & Ye. A couple of years ago I probably was looked at as more of an ‘advocate’ for Cole. When Cole World dropped, I was attacked on Twitter! Lol..after listening to both albums several times, Cole is honestly the easier listen. I only downloaded 5 tracks from Yeezus. But here’s my problem with Cole, he didn’t do anything really that hasn’t already been done – especially by Ye. Listen to how Bound 2 begins, Black Skinhead, New Slaves, & Blood on the Leaves. He PULLS you in, you don’t know WTF is coming next. It’s an adventure. Pay attention to how you feel when listening to your faves from Yeezus vs. Born Sinner. It will be copied. A lot of elements will be borrowed by everyone who’s name is in the conversation. It’s a game changer, love it or hate it just like the artist who created it. You can’t say the same of Cole.

  2. Jonathunder|

    This is the first album that I felt that J Cole actually lived up to his hype. Everyone has been talking about how talented he has but most of his previous stuff just felt like stuff made for the radio. This album made me a believer and I’m excited for whatever comes next. It appeals to me for it’s intellectual thoughts as well as some bangers of songs. Crooked Smile and Born Sinner are my two favorites. It started strong and ended with a bang.

  3. Arch Stanton|

    J Cole let this album down with his own production, the beats aren’t bad, they are just average. His raps are above par and deserve better beats backing them. Solid album none the less.

  4. senorwoohoo|

    Hey, I appreciate this feedback and will definitely take it into consideration. Thank you.

  5. Perfectly fine with me. You’re right about Cudi’s album – I only used it as a reference point because it was comparable. The point being with Born Sinner is that the reviewer doesn’t really explore the album’s depths. I respect everything he wrote – but no mention of Let Nas Down or Chaining Day or several other songs? No description of the interplay between his riches and the riches of white billionaires (which, by the way, I believe far outshines Ye’s commentary in New Slaves)? Not a single attempt to unpack the meaning of the album? When an artist – who you call the new Lu, one of the most intellectually proficient rappers of the modern era, and one that requires time to reflect and process his lyrics as much as anyone nowadays – makes an album that attempts to unpack truths deeper than the music, and the reviewer neglects to dive into that, I believe that is a failure on the part of the listener to really understand what the artist has crafted. You clearly know more about music than I do. That’s why I visit this site, and I enjoy it. But if you don’t actually review the entire album, how can you explain why you don’t like it?

  6. senorwoohoo|

    What if it’s just that we don’t like certain albums? Cudi’s record was weak and misguided, which we made clear.

  7. Not trying to get involved with your conversation with KG, but that’s a problem I’ve noticed on this site. I’ve only been coming here a couple of months, and while I enjoy the music selection and the coverage of less-known artists – and I respect the fact that these guys know way more about music and the entire scene than I do – the reviews of rap albums are incredibly lackluster. I had the same problem with Cudi’s last album, among others – they mentioned a third of the songs, one or two of the lines, and then proceeded to trash the rest of it. You’re completely right, the reviewer is ignoring the entire thematic complexity – among other aspects – of Born Sinner. Just saying that this isn’t an isolated incidence on this site.

  8. all good dude! i look forward to your future responses. I liked “tyler had the vision, earl has the talent” good way to put it

  9. grondin82|

    Good looks the response. Yeezus is definitely a challenging album. I am still trying to figure it out myself. I am a bit bias on his creative direction because I think EDM/house is a genre that should never intersect with hip-hop but agree to disagree.
    Sorry for the hate, I am just a huge Cole fan and thought such a prominent 2013 hip-hop release deserved a little more thought. I will be looking out for your other reviews.

  10. in all seriousness, you make some good points. Potholes is a great blog, and if i had weeks to sit with this album and listen on repeat this review might be different.

    Hate to bring back Yeezus but in the long run I do see that release affecting this one’s reception. I know you know this, but to generalize and say hip hop fans will choose this one is unfair. Hip hop fans may wish to be challenged by Yeezus, a much more outside the box release than Born Sinner, which is more traditional.

    I stand by the review, i think everything I discuss is relevant to the release, and i would have delved into the hip hop homage but i didn’t feel it had a strong or evident enough influence on the album to include in a short review. i don’t want to bore anyone. you should read my other reviews on the site and see if you have the same issues with those. if you do tweet at me and I’ll send you an email, @themotosurfer

  11. grondin82|

    No shit there’s going to be more reviews of Yeezus. I’m saying there is no need to state the obvious facts about album sales when reviewing an album because that is not why people are reading a review. Hip hop fans will choose this album over Yeezus any day of the week and that’s coming from a huge Kanye fan but that’s besides the point.

    In order to be qualified to review an album on a respectable music blog, such as Potholes, you should have a little more knowledge on the album, artist, or genre as a whole. You didn’t even mention the obvious homage to 90’s rap (Outkast sample on Land of the Snakes, TLC feature, Jay and Biggie lines) or the transition from light to dark/heaven to hell which this album is all about. Rather, you talk about how Villuminatti sounds like Timbo (barely) and briefly dissect the opening line on Rich N*ggas. You really investigated this album man!!!

  12. i dont think this album will do much to keep the genre of hip hop alive, i think the billion subgenres and all the money being made off of it will likely have more impact on that cause. and yeezus will certainly affect this album, for every 1 review of j cole theres about 20 of yeezus, completely overshadowing this release. Also Rick Moranis has an album out called “My Mother’s Brisket” shall I review that?

  13. senorwoohoo|

    J. Cole the new Lu

  14. j cole dick riders be riding j coles dick smh…this shit was aight

  15. slomororo|

    In order to have a sophomore slump doesn’t the artists first release have to be a success? By all accounts in my opinion COLE WORLD was a lack luster album and mediocore at best. Pretty hard not to beat that if you put in some decent work, especially considering the higher quality of his mixtape releases

  16. Henry Yrneh|

    Fuck the yeezus album all bout J cole

  17. senorwoohoo|

    Changed it.

  18. grondin82|

    You can tell you only listened to this album once or twice through from this lackluster review. First off, no need to highlight the only 6 bars on the album where the artist slightly offended a social group (you could do that in a review of pretty much every rap album ever, except maybe Macklemore). As Cole said, “don’t be so sensitive”. Secondly, J. Cole has been singing hooks like Runaway since The Warm Up so that’s nothing new and make’s your point about his singer career worthless. Lastly, stop talking about Yeezus and comment on more than four songs on the album. Yeezus doesn’t matter in the context of this album and neither do album sales when you are talking about quality of music. Yeezus is far from hip-hop. Born Sinner is an album keeping the genre alive.

  19. Gererere|

    official video of Power Trip is even better. why you dont show that?

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