@JColeNC has been to hell and back in the music biz if you let him tell it. That trajectory in the rap game just so happened to parallel his life as a North Carolina boy born to a German mother, hungry for his place among the greats. From being repeatedly cut from basketball teams growing up, to being passed over by Jay-Z outside his studio in the rain (you’ve had to have heard that story by now), Jermaine Cole is an underdog to the core. Cole is constantly finding himself getting back up to prove himself after a loss, and in his opinion, his most recent loss comes in the form of his first album Cole World: The Sideline Story. That’s not a typo ya’ll, we are talking about the same Sideline Story that debuted at number 1 on Billboard and had a Platinum selling single with Work Out. Instead of these accomplishments relieving Cole of the pressures of being the first signee to Jay-Z’s Roc Nation, it only seemed to put a magnifying glass on the accomplishments he fell short of. His first album may have sold over 220,000 units on its first week, but the college kid from Fayetteville doesn’t seem moved by that.
“First week tally’s fucking up hip hop”
-J.Cole, Twitter 6/19/2013
As a fan you love to hear that your favorite artists are no longer blinded by the platinum and gold plaques in their home studio, or the awards on their shelf, but only by the desire to craft that elusive classic album. Uncle Jay said it best in his recent Samsung Commercial, “I just want my Picasso” and in the post Good Kid M.A.A.D City era that is everything, to critics, fans, and artists alike. We saw the aforementioned album gain his good friend Kendrick Lamar worldwide praise and respect in every music circle, and at the same time a Gold selling album and so much tour money K. Dot could probably diiive, in it. Say what you want about Kendrick (his skill is undeniable so actually, don’t say what you want, unless it’s that) his debut album is a large part of the recent movement in hip hop away from the platinum single and towards the critically acclaimed project. With that stage set for him, young lightskinned Jermaine had his work cut out for him with his second album, Born Sinner. After going through a couple of highly publicized release dates (remember that January 28th birthday release announcement/false alarm?) a creative and aggressive promo run including 2 solid EPs, A $1 concert tour and first-of-its-kind outdoor listening sessions via phone app, J. Cole’s latest work Born Sinner has the stage set to be a historic home run or a haunting misstep that could make or break the 26 year old rapper/producer’s career. Today is June 19th, 2013 and Born Sinner has been officially out for 1 day, unofficially out for nearly 2 weeks, and from first hearing this album at the NYC listening session (unreal experience, good move Dreamville) and living with it every day since, its true when he proclaimed at the top of the first track “It’s way darker this time”. Cole’s bares his soul throughout Born Sinner, and it’s evident that’s “way darker” too.
As a body of work, Born Sinner stays centered on certain themes musically and content wise, and this helps tie the album together like a book almost, even without the chronoligical story structure of a GKMC or American Gangster (Jay-Z, 2007). Born Sinner as a title is Cole taking a brutally honest and somewhat spiritual approach to his own self-awareness. It serves as a simultaneous admission and glorification of his faults as a young man dealing with life post his dollar-and-a-dream days.
Lyrically, Cole has advanced tremendously from his first album and it’s an undeniable fact. He knows he’s gotten nicer too, and makes more claims to the throne of rap than ever in his career:
“Cole is the king and you know that/started with a dollar and a dream and you know that!”
“Only man above me is God himself, All these other n*ggas is below me…”
“When I say that I’m the greatest I ain’t talkin bout later.”
-J. Cole, Forbidden Fruit
Nevertheless, Cole’s flows flip gracefully through the drums from track to track, and is even startling at times (his flow on Rich N*ggaz & Mo’ Money was like water). The sequencing (an oft overlooked and infinitely important quality of great albums) is superb, starting with the lyrically relentless and sonically pitch black intro Villuminati. On this intro, Cole is like an AK-47 without the safety, bragging like Hov and rapping without any restrictions. Sampling the classic line from Biggie’s Juicy in the hook, and borrowing another one just as iconic from Jigga’s catalog solidifies the track as a reintroduction to J. Cole, no more the wide eyed up -and-comer looking for anyone’s approval. The strong introduction sets the stage for Cole to fill his album with quality, generally focused songs throughout the album. The two interludes are Cole’s departure from the story telling that rules the album and serve as moments of clarity pertaining to his current life and thoughts ranging from who’s really controlling all the money he’s making, to the realization that the dream is a reality:
“Ain’t that some sh*t, well paid for this rapping sh*t…”
-J. Cole, Ain’t that Some Shit (Interlude)
Cole’s lyrical missteps here are common ones among most rappers, frequently in the form of veering far off topic within his verses (see Forbidden Fruit) after creating detailed concepts in his melodic hooks. Not a terrible thing, but if there is room for improvement it lies in that area.
J. Cole is fearless as a producer and a rapper on Born Sinner, enough to control the entire project’s production (the only two tracks not produced by Cole are the two interludes, produced by Jake One and Syience, respectively) Having full confidence in his beat crafting and song writing skills to not really get any outside help (no Hov feature, or any other featured rappers) takes some gall, especially with Kanye West and No I.D. on speed dial. Speaking of those two, It’s evident J. Cole was taking notes from the two greats as you can hear the spirit of No I.D.’s jazz centered, live instrumentation style in some of the notable beats off of this album (see Chaining Day, Let Nas Down, and Runaway).
Many have compared this album to Yeezy’s classic debut The College Dropout because of the overall soulful feel of the beats and the underdog undertone nested in Cole’s delivery and production. Although Cole as a lyricst in Born Sinner is better than Kanye in TCD (be real now), the no frills approach to the vocals (singing/rapping) on this album give it that classic feel that Kanye and some of the early greats had in their albums. To be more specific, none of the engineering acrobatics that makes TDE’s (anything Mixed By Ali touches) and A$AP Rocky’s vocals so futuristic, and has become a trend in today’s computerized music world, are evident in this album. You won’t hear much vocal doubling, pitched down echoes, or obnoxious reverbs on Born Sinner, so the beats, rhymes, and concepts take center stage from top to bottom.
Born sinner was made for repeat, the proof is in the design (it begins and ends with the same choral refrain). Cole is unapologetic as ever, and the attitude behind tracks like Rich N*ggaz and Villuminati is invigorating, it shows the new sense of overflowing confidence that will make some love this album, and some hate it. Dark string chords, dynamic drum loops, soul samples and live instruments rule the album and establish Born Sinner’s advanced yet traditional hip-hop sound that will resonate with hip hop heads young and old. J. Cole takes us on a sonic, soul searching quest of glory, sin, and guilt that ends in hope (and gives us one of his greatest songs to date with Crooked Smile). Time will tell if this is going to be Cole’s defining masterpiece as an artist, but here and now this is one of the most complete hip hop albums to come out in the past two years. Cole is staking his claim for a spot amongst the new legends and “ain’t never letting [it] go again.” Well done.
Trouble – Cole’s go to drum kit with what sounds like a church service at the gates of hell. the fact that Cole had a real choir come in sing the hook (that ain’t no sample!) made me love this song more. Great transitional moment in the album as well.
Runaway – Took honesty to it’s limit. Over a crunchy live sounding backdrop with resonate flutes, floating harps and the light accents of a bevy of other instruments. Lyrical firestorm of all the insecurities that lie on Cole’s heart. 40 second jazz freestyle at the end topped off by what have now become cole’s signature strings, all driven by a nimble bassline. Great bridge/outro.
Rich Niggaz – Starts with gentle harp plucks amidst a soothing bed of violins. Then a very Timbaland-esque drum pattern, with more of Cole’s signature 808 kit. Cole sings that “ayo” diddy from his sleeper Louis Vuitton. Great song about the ills of the power of money and how its damaged family, and even day to day occurences.
Chaining day - Beautiful soul groove in this song about guilt from wealth. Introspective take on the money’s mental slavery over him as a young rapper introduced to sudden wealth. Chaining day is almost a metaphor for that kind of slavery. The screwing of the beat at the end won me over.
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