It was the late Ben Parker that told his pre-Spider-Man nephew that “with great power, comes great responsibility.” Jermaine Cole finds himself in a similar situation; a young artist with almost superhuman abilities. Many forward thinking Hip-Hop heads have placed their hopes on J. Cole to carry the mantle into this new Rap landscape.
Yet for some reason, it seems like Cole gets treated more like Peter Parker than his superhero alter ego. Even with the standout mix tapes and Gold-selling debut album, J. Cole doesn’t seem to get the same respect or attention as some of his peers. Just like young Parker, Cole has to decide if he wants to take on the responsibility of being an artist true to himself, or if he wants to use his ability for cheap thrills and here today, gone tomorrow trend rap. The kind of rap that gets you a platinum selling iTunes single, but doesn’t log your discography in the pantheon of the greats.
Where will J. Cole go with Born Sinner? Read and find out.
Note #1: All tracks produced by J. Cole, unless listed.
We get a gospel choir at the beginning and Cole saying that “It’s way darker this time.” The beat echoes the sentiment, as we get an eerie backdrop and a loop of Biggie’s line from “Juicy”, “born sinner/the opposite of a winner.” From there Cole goes into straight barrage mode as he tackles critics, haters, his own fame (and how he still has bills even though he’s rich), the Illuminati and even homophobia. What’s also present in this lyrical onslaught are some not so thinly veiled insights into Cole’s feelings into his relationship with his boss Jay-Z. That in itself could be its own article, but for now be content in knowing that Cole absolutely murders the intro. The album is off to a spectacular start.
2. Kearney Sermon (Skit)
If you couldn’t tell by the title of the album, Cole is incorporating the theme of religion (particularly Christianity) into this album. This won’t be mistaken for a Lecrae release, but he tries to examine the various vices that occur in his life. Here we get a 45 second skit of a TV televangelist, the kind that comes on at 4am on BET. Nothing spectacular, but after the brief choir snippet we got on the first track it does a good job of building up the theme.
3. Land Of The Snakes
J. Cole flips the beat from “Da Art Of Storytellin’ (Pt. 1)” off of Outkast’s Aquemani for one of the albums few light moments. Here Cole reminisces about his dealings with women before he was famous. Unlike most rappers who just brag about their sexual conquests, Cole actually talks about his remorse for having to be underhanded in his interaction with the fairer sex, but also knowing that being soft can make you a target. While it doesn’t have the feel of a huge radio hit, it could easily get spins on the airwaves as it makes for a good summer time jam. Whether you play it with your top down or just play it in your headphones, it’s a win.
4. Power Trip
While “Miss America” was officially the first single from the album, this really feels like the first single. This is the song being played ad nasuem on the radio, and the song that has your homeboy crooning Miguel’s part while y’all in the car. While most people take this song as a simple love song, rap nerds know Cole is getting his Common on and talking about his love for Hip-Hop. While the rap as a female concept is pretty worn out, Jermaine does a really good job, mainly because he doesn’t take the same “I don’t recognize her, hip-hops not the same” approach that most of his forbearers take. Instead, Cole is the hungry newcomer who is still deeply infatuated with her:
Well this has gotta be the longest crush ever
If I ever get to fuck it’d be the longest bust ever
Love is a drug, like the strongest stuff ever
And, fuck it I’m on one, you feel me?
She on a power trip, she got me where she want a nigga
Wifin’ in the club, man my homies’ gon’ disown a nigga
Like, “give me 20 dolla, dolla”
Ass stupid, how you get to college, college
I’m in your city and I’m wonderin’ if you’re home now
Went and found a man, but I’m hopin’ you alone now
Can’t help but feelin’ like I dropped the ball, cliche
I used to pop up on you at the mall each day
Now typically I kick game like East Bay
But you got a nigga freeze-framed yelling please play
For Pete’s sake, homie, pull it together
Just fuck her one time and be through it forever
For a pop-friendly single this song has some real staying power and has remained fresh, even though it’s in constant rotation.
5. Mo’ Money (Interlude)
We get a short interlude with a plodding beat with Cole rapping about the perils of fortune and how people will do anything for money. We also get another jab at Jay as J. Cole raps, “I mean the type of niggas that would laugh at Hov money.” I don’t know if these are shots at the Roc leader or just clever turns of phrase, but Cole is really putting everything on the table with this one. The song clocks in at under two minutes, which is a shame because Cole’s flow and lyrics are so on point, and the track does a good job of detailing the immoral side of fame and fortune, which continues the theme of the album.
Six songs in and J. Cole hasn’t taken a track off. The song has a sinister sound, and it truly sounds big, the first time the album really feels epic or grand. The choir singing the hook helps create the grandiose touch as Cole continues the theme from the previous track and narrates about how the trappings of fame and money can lead someone astray. While Cole can spit some slick shit with the best of them, he still remains self aware and can tell the change the game has had on him. As I stated before, this isn’t a Christian album, but I think Christian rappers could take a page from Cole’s book on how to talk about sin without being condescending or preachy.
The song opens with a pretty funny segment from a Mike Epps stand up about how married men act in different situations. Cole uses it as a chance to talk about how men run away from commitment and how lust often overpowers love. While the song itself is solid with a strong framework and good lyrics, the airy instrumental and simple hook make the song feel flat. Definitely not a bad track, as it continues the theme of examining various vices like the other songs, but it fails to carry the momentum of “Trouble”. The song is too good to call filler but that’s the best way I can describe it.
8. She Knows
Featuring Amber Coffman
While “Runaway” may have lacked in excitement it served its purpose in setting up this song. I really appreciate Cole paying attention to sequencing and building a cohesive album. Here he creates a frantic yet simple beat with a piano riff and drum loop as he talks about trying to stay faithful to his girl while having multiple women approach him. Cole’s voice mirrors the franticness of the beat as you can feel the anguish in his voice as he wants to do right by his girl but temptation is wearing on him. The lyrics also don’t disappoint either:
Damned if I do, damned if I don’t
I’m passing up on bad hoes, trying to be the man that she want
What she want, what she want from a nigga
To put a ring on it
Got a bitch on my dick right now
And she just want to sing on it
Got me up so high, trying to get a piece of that apple pie
I be up so high, trying to get a piece of that apple pie
Dance on fire, with my pants on fire
Cause I told her I was sleeping
Cause I creep with this pretty young thing I chose
That she could be doing the same thing I suppose
I can’t think of one man who couldn’t relate to this song. Dope.
9. Rich Niggaz
By the title you may expect Cole to start stunting, but Cole is deeper than that. Over a somber beat Cole laments money and wishes how he could just be graded on skill alone and not wealth. He talks about being afraid of being broke again because of the strain it put on his mother to provide. And although he can’t stand money, Cole understands how important it is to have and how it has changed him. The song is so personal and beautiful you won’t be able to not nod your head in agreement.
10. Where’s Jermaine? (Skit)
We get another skit tying into the church/religion theme, this time of a choir rehearsal Cole has apparently skipped. I don’t know who this choir is or what songs they’re singing, but they sound really good. I wouldn’t mind hearing more.
11. Forbidden Fruit
Featuring Kendrick Lamar
Mr. Good Kid Mad City comes through to do hook duty for his homie. The beat is super smooth as Cole really drives home the religion thing with church metaphors (and a really impressive and hilarious jab at Mr. Cee). The song is great until Cole decides to extend the track to create a lead-in to the next song. I appreciate the continuity but the character he creates at the end is really annoying, and it ends up dragging the song on for too long. This could’ve been an interlude rather than being tacked on to the song like this.
12. Chaining Day
While the recession has caused rappers to tone down on the bling, a chain is still one of the most recognizable signs of a rapper’s success in Hip-Hop. Here Cole pokes fun at the ridiculousness of spending money on a chain, but once again he has caught himself falling victim to the practice. Like the previous song, this is a very strong effort that gets hurt by being dragged out. The song is almost 5 minutes long and the rapping stops around the 3 and a half minute mark. This kills all the work the song does and also hurts the transition into the next song.
13. Ain’t That Some Shit (Interlude)
After two long and mellow tracks we get a shot of energy as J. Cole just spazzes out for 2 minutes. Cole’s not really saying anything here, but he sounds dope and proves he’s one hell of a shit talker. This was a good way to bring the energy back as the album was in danger of dragging.
14. Crooked Smile
Featuring TLC; Co-Produced by Elite
From the jump I have two problems with this song. First, I know this song is supposed to sample TLC’s “Unpretty”, but I don’t hear it. I went back and listened to “Unpretty” like 5 times and I couldn’t hear it. Second, usually an interlude sets up the next song and the song that builds from said interlude. This has NOTHING to do with the last track. Any who, gripes aside, I really like this song. J. Cole opens up about his own insecurities and encourages the ladies to not let others diminish their worth, and even offers some brief, yet poignant perspective on race. I hope this song becomes a future single because the message is so strong and positive.
15. Let Nas Down
Co-Produced by No-I.D.
I don’t claim to be the authority on J. Cole, but I don’t know how well known his idolization of Nas is. Here Cole goes into deep detail about his respect and admiration for Nas, only to be utterly crushed once he found out through the grapevine that Escobar was less than impressed with Cole’s first single “Workout” from his debut album. While hearing Cole rap about his devotion to his idol is interesting, the third verse is most telling to who Cole is as an artist and where he sees himself fitting into the game:
I always believed in the bigger picture
If I could get them niggas to listen outside my core then I can open a door
Reintroduce ’em to honesty, show ’em that they need more
The difference between the pretenders and the Kendrick Lamars
And so, I took the fall like the Son of the Lord
On the cross, dyin’ for that fake shit you niggas bought
For the past decade, if I should pass please let this be my last essay
Therefore I write from the heart
Apologies to OG’s for sacrificin’ my art
But I’m here for a greater purpose, I knew right from the start
I’m just a man of the people, not above but equal
And for the greater good I walk amongst the evil
Don’t cry mama, this the life I choose myself
Just pray along the way that I don’t lose myself
This is for the nigga that said that Hip-Hop was dead
I went to Hell to resurrect it, how could you fail to respect it?
Lettin’ Nas down, I got the phone call quietly I mourned dog, I let Nas down
Yeah, and on this flight may I never lose sight, fuck it
While it may come across as self righteous, you can see that Cole wants to be a serious contributor to Hip-Hop, and you can tell that he was genuinely distraught that his favorite rapper thought he tried to sell out for some radio play. Cole has a real gift in conveying emotion, and this song is a great example.
16. Born Sinner
Featuring James Fauntleroy
The title track is also the proper albums closer as Cole pleads with God to accept him for who he is and comes to grip with the man that he has become and continues to grow into. You can hear the trembling in Cole’s voice that adds authenticity to the track as you can tell he is talking about something deeply personal. The horns and piano sound like Sunday morning and the choir taking over the hook at the end of the song make for a great culmination of the album.
Note #2: The Deluxe Version of Born Sinner contains the songs “Miss America”, “New York Times” featuring 50 Cent & Bas, “Is She Gon Pop”, “Niggaz Know” and “Sparks Will Fly” featuring Jhene Aiko.
Coming into this review I really didn’t have a dog in the race. Although I’m a Cole fan I was a casual one. I really liked his Friday Night Lights mixtape and thought Cole World was above average. The only thing I expected from this album was for it to be one of the major releases of 2013.
Imagine then how I felt when after I listened to the album I was actually frustrated. Frustrated because this album was SOOOO damn close to being a classic. I literally had to sit and study this album to discern whether or not it was worthy of receiving nappyafro’s third classic rating. It has everything you could want from a classic album. Great lyrics, dope beats, interesting and fresh concepts, and a cohesive theme (much better than Game’s attempt at a religious album with last year’s Jesus Piece). Cole literally does all the major things to make a 5 star album. Yet, just as great players can do all the major things right, it’s the legends who not only master the big things, but the little ones as well. Cole gets tripped up over nitpicky things, like extending a song too long to where it loses its steam (“Forbidden Fruit” & “Chaining Day”), or letting a weak hook bog down a strong track (“Runaway”). Also, while all of the tracks stand out and are strong on their own, there really doesn’t feel like there’s one true defining track that really breaks out from the rest. This album will be bettered remembered for the sum of its parts, not necessarily the strength of its pieces.
Ironically, what may really hold Born Sinner back from being a classic is J. Cole himself. It almost seems like he wasn’t concerned with making a classic so much as making a honest record that was true to himself as an artist. I say that because although there is bragging and boasting, it’s hard to find where he truly asserts himself to the top, which is a shame because this really felt like the time to do so.
It’s not often we get an artist like J. Cole, who truly wants to be an artist foremost and an entertainer second. It’s fitting that Nas is his favorite artist, as he may be this generation’s Nas; one of the all time greats who never really got the same level of recognition as his peers. At least Nas had Illmatic. All throughout this record you get the sense that Cole is on the brink of greatness, he’s definitely touching his glass ceiling. Hopefully the industry lets him stay around long enough for him to break it.