Late on Born Sinner, J. Cole issues one of the most unnecessary apologies in hip-hop history. On “Let Nas Down,” he goes into great detail about how in his desperation to come up with a single for his debut album, Cole World: The Sideline Story, he disappointed his idol:
“Dion called me when it dropped, sounded sad but sincere/Told me Nas heard your single and he hate that s**t/Said you the one, yo why you make that s**t? I can’t believe I let Nas down/Damn, my heart sunk to my stomach, I can’t believe I let Nas down.”
Really? Nas? The same guy who made “Oochie Wally”, “You Owe Me” (which Cole even references on the song) and even the recent commercial trash “Summer on Smash”? While the song itself is great with a jazz saxophone (a la Jay-Z’s “Death of Autotune”) and Cole hitting on all cylinders lyrically, it would have been even better if he was telling Nas where to stick it.
“Let Nas Down” illustrates a larger problem for the supremely talented J. Cole on his sophomore effort, Born Sinner. He positions the album as being a lot darker than the first, a rejection of the more radio-friendly material on The Sideline Story. However, despite his intentions the second major label release is neither as substantive nor as original as the first.
Almost the entire album is produced by Cole himself and there are only a few guest spots that go by mostly unnoticed, and it would be an impressive effort if so much weren’t expected. This is not another mixtape from an up-and-comer. Cole is this reviewer’s favorite MC in the game today, so it’s disappointing not to see him assume more of his own identity.
Homages to his past heroes are scattered throughout Born Sinner.
“LAnd of the Snakes” borrows quite liberally from Outkast’s “Da Art of Storytelling (Pt. 1)”; “Villuminati” samples Biggie’s voice (“Born sinner/the opposite of a winner”); “Forbidden Fruit,” on which Kendrick Lamar is tragically underused, only for the hook, is steeped in A Tribe Called Quest’s “Electric Relaxation” sample of “Mystic Brew.”
It’s difficult to be too critical, because some of it sounds pretty great. It did the first time, after all. Still, we’ve waited a couple years for Born Sinner and you might expect a new direction, a sound all its own. Instead it’s a, albeit very good, rehash of material we’re already familiar with.
Cole is a prodigious student of the game, but it’s working against him here. He’s borrowing too much from Jay, Nas and Biggie. The lack of identity, sad to say it, makes Born Sinner reminiscent of a Game album.
The other overriding problem here is a lack of substance. There’s too much talk about b**ches and hoes. It’s more tired than dark. It feels misogynist and petty on “Trouble” when Cole raps, “Want flowers, cards and the purses next/Nah, b**ch can’t a dollar/Cole on Twitter, b**ch can’t get a follow.”
He sounds just silly and weird on “LAnd of the Snakes” rapping, “My kicks hard, my whip hard/I came out the womb with my d*ck hard.”
Many of the songs on Born Sinner follow a similar narrative: Cole is an increasingly rich, horny dude, who will use ‘em and then lose ‘em, but there’s a few he really likes, although he’ll probably still cheat on them. The lead single “Power Trip” featuring Miguel is a prime example with Cole explaining:
“The same clubs I used to get tossed out/Life got crisscrossed, totally crossed out/Cause now I’m in this b**ch and I’m totally bossed out/Old chicks crying cause they know that they lost out/But I’m still on you, I’m still on you.”
Despite these complaints, Born Sinner is easy on the ears with solid production throughout and Cole having flow for days.
The operatic production on “Trouble” stands out, the rich strings and eager beat of “Villuminati” is a perfect backdrop for Cole’s skills. The thump of “She Knows” is impossible to hard to resist, with Cole imagining himself as a Martin Luther King of the clubs (“In the back of his mind is Coretta.”) “Is She Gon Pop” and “Forbidden Fruit” are fun even if they’re filled with overly simplistic come-ons.
Born Sinner will get you through the day, but it’s sort of like one of the many nameless women Cole relentlessly pursues – pretty to look at it, hollow on the inside.
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