J Cole "Born Sinner" Album Review
Jay-Z protege producer/emcee J Cole returns eager to bounce back from his critically dismal debut with new album Born Sinner. Almost as an intentionally down-to-earth counterpart release in conjunction with fellow Jay-Z protege Kanye West's album Yeezus (read our Yeezus review), Born Sinner is Cole's continued journey to maintain his humble roots while navigating life as a mainstream rap artist.
Strong-armed by two saccharine singles "Power Trip" and "Crooked Smile", Born Sinner's album campaign was smooth but nothing special. However, one of our correspondents, Yoh attended an anything-but-smooth Born Sinner listening party in Atlanta that involved a mobile app and a scavenger hunt for a Beats by Dr. Dre device that streamed the album. Call it a diet Yeezus approach. To further promote the album, Cole is currently embarking on the Dollar & A Dream Tour, where $1 tickets are sold on a first come, first serve basis on the day of each tour date. Much credit is given to Cole for acknowledging and embodying his every-man demeanor by looking out for his fans. As for the album art, the two pieces don't really explain much about the album, save for the deluxe cover that shows a suspiciously infantile devil statue adorned with a drawn-in crown.
The lyricism is consistent ; J Cole's heavy reliance on cool and calm multi-syllabic rhyming keeps the ball rolling from beginning to end
Cole seems more comfortable with adding sing-song hooks this time around. The transitions from singing to rapping blend very well especially on tracks such as "Power Trip", "Runaway", "Forbidden Fruit" and "Rich Niggaz". The lyricism is consistent; J Cole's heavy reliance on cool and calm multi-syllabic rhyming keeps the ball rolling from beginning to end, except on the very jarring and unnecessary double-time flow on the dated-sounding interlude "Ain't That Some Shit". The decision to not let Kendrick Lamar clock in a verse is quite appalling considering the chemistry the two have on Cole's production, but as far as other guests are concerned, Miguel, T-Boz and Chili of TLC and James Fauntelroy of Cocaine 80's provided excellent choruses that cater to each of their respective strengths.
Taking on 95% of the album's production by himself, Cole took advantage of that Roc Nation money to get some lush live string, guitar and choir sections to add some grand atmosphere to the beats. Depending on the audience, some may be turned off by his interpolations of Outkast's "The Art Of Storytelling" on "Land Of The Snakes" and A Tribe Called Quest's "Electric Relaxation" on "Forbidden Fruit". Not too many left-field risks are taken, and as a result everything complements the raps comfortably.
There were attempts to illustrate a concept of a man falling into and dealing with sin throughout the album. This concept could have been strengthened a bit more by having better interludes/narration, but none of the skits really helped connect anything nor were even entertaining in the least. The closing track that actually sums up the concept "Born Sinner" has the feel of a ending credits/ride-into-the-sunset song, but all the songs before it don't provide a clear build up content-wise. The only element keeping the album together is the smooth production.
KRE contributor Dave illustrated that J Cole is quite simply the rap version of a white t-shirt. There are many uses of the words "smooth" and "comfortable" in this review, and that's exactly what this album is. Despite the level of vulnerability Cole expresses while talking about his struggle, not too many risks are taken and the messages don't really hit with a punch. The result is a very normal rap album made by a normal person living through normal experiences. The one situation we can't really relate to is on "Let Nas Down", where Cole expresses his admiration for the legendary emcee and how he felt when his hero critically panned his radio single. Vulnerability is a double-edged sword, and Cole cut himself a little too thin with what most would consider a great track on this album.
Cole remains in a cool and calm demeanor throughout the entire album even on tracks where concepts should evoke more emotions. Fortunately, he understands his voice and how it should be applied to his production to reach an acceptable level at least. If he can continue this progression (this album is arguably better than his first one), his next one might be able to hit the next apex.