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?