Born Sinner (to be released June 18, 2013)
I love J. Cole. And sometimes, I hate J.Cole.
I love Cole because, since dropping his first mixtape in 2009, he’s ushered in an era of lyrical artistry for younger fans. While many of his colleagues are content with dropping one-dimensional club tracks, Cole’s music paints more accurate pictures of life’s struggles. Sure, he revels in life’s joys but he also grapples with its pains. Combine that lyricism that’s light-years ahead of his peers and they’re no reason he shouldn’t be mentioned in the same breath as rap’s elite.
Except he’s not. And I hate that.
Cole’s solo debut, Cole World: The Sideline Story, was solid but nowhere near as good as it should have been. I lamented the fact that Cole’s mixtapes, all of which are free for the taking online, were leagues better than the product for which he was charging $11.99. The album was filled with lackadaisical singles and questionable punchlines (“Cole heatin’ up like that leftover lasagna…”). It was frustrating to see such promise go to waste.
Cole’s not perfect but, honestly, that’s what elevates him from the current caricatures masquerading as rappers. He’s human.
That’s the theme of Cole’s sophomore project, Born Sinner, which is a looking glass into the soul of a young man grappling with right and wrong. Cole’s at a crossroads and he brings us along as he looks for direction.
I love Cole for his honesty. The album opens with “Villumniati,” where he says “it’s way darker this time.” He’s not lying. This isn’t the lighthearted Cole of “Work Out” and “Can’t Get Enough.” This time around, he’s less frat boy and more conflicted altar boy.
“The preachers say we’re made in the image of Lord, to which I replied, are you sure?/Even the murder? Even the whore?” he asks on “Runaway.” If we’re God’s children, why do we run from our blessings? “Even in your lowest days when you’re no longer Superman/at least you know you got Lois Lane but … you runaway.” It’s a fascinating look at how temptation constantly claws at good intentions.
I love Cole for respecting the path his forefathers paved for him. “Land of the Snakes,” a cautionary tale of how indiscretions will catch up with you, borrows from OutKast’s “Da Art of Storytellin’ (Pt. 1),” while he swipes Jay-Z’s flow from “Imaginary Player” on the interlude “Mo Money.” He even opens the door for the legendary R&B girl group TLC to join him on “Crooked Smile.” It reminds listeners to love themselves despite their faults, saying, “No need to fix what God already put his paintbrush on.” It’s basically TLC’s “Unpretty” for a new generation of listeners.
Most of all, I love that Cole remains at odds with vices. One minute, he’s defending the have-nots and spitting bitter vengeance against the 1% on “Rich N***az,” warning the wealthy “how much for your soul?” The next minute he’s bragging about his own jewelry on “Chaining Day.” Even then, he says “my last piece, I swear, my guilt heavy as this piece I wear.” We all wrestle with envy and, sometimes, we hate ourselves for stooping so low. It’s life.
But, as always, Cole stirs up conflicting emotions about his music. I hate the fact that Cole always seems to struggle finding a solid radio single. “Power Trip” hasn’t been a commercial flop, but it’s no prize creatively. It’s much too murky and tends to drag on, even with Miguel crooning on the hook. I hate that Cole still serves up a few eye-rolling punchlines (“My black and white diamonds shining like an Oreo,” on “Chaining Day,” for instance.)
Most of all, I hate the fact that Cole continues to give away his best material for free. It’s unfair to judge an album on the merits of other works, I realize that. Still, yet it’s frustrating to know that songs like “Cole Summer,” “Rise,” “Can I Holla At Ya?” and “Crunch Time,” all which would have fit in perfectly on Born Sinner, appeared for free months ago. Had they been added to this project it would have lifted it to the next level.
But Cole’s biggest critic might be himself. On “Let Nas Down,” he admits that he struggles to keep up with the comparisons of his idol and was crushed when Esco expressed displeasure in Cole’s material. Cole knows he’s a work in progress and is working harder with each verse to reach those lofty expectations.
That hunger is evident here. Born Sinner puts Cole on the right track. Sometimes it’s great, sometimes it falls short. It’s not as great as it should be but it embraces its flaws and revels in its victories.
Really, it’s just like us, and that’s why the album works.
No hate here. Born Sinner is one of the best albums of 2013 so far. You gotta love Cole for that.
Best tracks: “Rich N****z,” “Crooked Smile,” “Villuminati”
4 stars out of 5