Similar to critique aimed at his contemporary competitor Drake, J. Cole has been subject to accusations of coasting and falling short of high quality in an age of lowered standards and expectations. The butt of running jokes surrounding a supposed inability to captivate, he finds himself at odds attempting to please not only a crowd clamoring for the passion found on his former mixtapes but an industry model only considerate of polished hit makers. As this persistent inner conflict pulls him in multiple directions at once, Born Sinner has J. Cole entertaining under the pressure of an identity complex which clashes with his best intentions.
Working to prevent the fabled sophomore curse from coming to pass, Born Sinner is a decidedly edgier follow up to J. Cole’s 2011 debut Cole World: The Sideline Story. The project succeeds in tying its theme of spiritual crisis amidst stardom to an analogy for the struggle to satisfy purists, but the overall results for this concept are fairly lackluster. Glaring missteps arise from “Forbidden Fruit” and “Land Of The Snakes,” which rehash the melodies of A Tribe Called Quest’s “Electric Relaxation” and OutKast’s “Da Art of Storytellin’ (Part 1)” respectively, as Cole banks on nostalgia to carry his load. Also likely to make a bad impression, he sounds fairly static at times, the otherwise ambitious “Rich Niggaz” standing out in this regard.
J. Cole is determined to earn the continued approval of his hometown Fayetteville, NC and the Rap legends to come before him. On the opening track “Villuminati" he repeats the phrase, “Sometimes I brag like Hov” before launching into verbal onslaught, perhaps setting out to convince listeners that he should one day be held in comparison to his iconic boss. Arguably the most honest moment of introspection on Born Sinner arrives with “Let Nas Down,” a brave yet awkward tale of how the QB veteran shunned Cole’s prior measures taken in the pursuit of success. He looks back with regret, pleading, “I couldn’t help but that think that maybe I had made a mistake / I mean you made ‘You Owe Me’ dog, I thought that you could relate,” reflecting his greatest strength and weakness in a vulnerability that risks backfiring.
With this release striving to walk followers through the depths of J. Cole’s soul, completely buying in to the experiment requires one to suspend disbelief as it rings inauthentic at points. “Trouble” deals with the pitfalls of groupies and spotlight and “She Knows” covers the temptations of infidelity, both overcompensating for his usually boyish charm with excessive usage of the terms “bitch” and “hoe.”
“Runaway” borrows a familiar, Cole sonic formula (one used on this very album, even). He switches pace here addressing what are presumably his own struggles with fame, infidelity and America’s complicated relationship with slavery (“Wise words from an indecent man / Made me reflect on the times when we was three fifths of them / In chains and powerless / Brave souls reduced to cowardice…”). The taboo subject of America’s history of institutionalized racism and how that history informs Hip Hop’s current socio-economic state is further fleshed out on the soulful “Chaining Day.”
Thoughtfully conveying the insecurities that accompany the public perception of flossing, he explains, “The same shit a broke black nigga gets gassed at / The same shit a rich white motherfucker laughs at...” The song’s apologetic hook chants, “I need you to love me,” possibly begging forgiveness for superficial living and his generally cold demeanor throughout Born Sinner.
Receiving a pass for effort and strong conviction rather than actual execution, Born Sinner does little to rectify concerns that J. Cole has trouble exciting segments of his audience. Despite the layered production and varied rhyme cadences employed at times, it’s not a particularly dynamic listen. Cole’s repertoire now includes commentary about how race, power and wealth are all connected—particularly for those in his chosen field. It’s an improvement from earlier efforts (see his reference to the Three-Fifths Compromise of 1787 on “Runaway”), which adds up to an improved, but not quite superior album.
The lead singles “Power Trip” and “Crooked Smile” are misfits to the prevalent darker tone with little purpose past commercial appeal, and the repeated dramatic choir effect (examples include the more memorable “Two Words” by Kanye West and Lil Wayne’s “Mr. Carter” amongst others) has become stale within Hip Hop by now. Though commendable as it is largely self-produced without a solitary emcee cameo, Cole’s semi-autobiographical one man show settles for being average where a more vibrant character would bring life to his music.