Hip-Hop traditionally has the balance of two kings — where one star rapper is the flossy guy and the other is the pensive lyricist. We saw it with Big Daddy Kane and Rakim, Jay-Z and Nas, and ultimately Drake and J. Cole. Now, with artists like Kendrick Lamar quickly ascending into pensiveness, Cole needed to expand his horizons. Sure, he’s never been an all-around cerebral rapper, but much of his first album and in-betweeny mixtapes leaned heavily on his ability to toss around bars.
Most of the cuts on Born Sinner provide a healthy balance of objectifying women (“LAnd Of The Snakes”), celebrating women (“Crooked Smile” with TLC), self-deprecatingly honoring his own achievements (“Power Trip” with Miguel, “Rich N****Z,” and “Chaining Day”), all while still finding time to delve into his emotions (“Let Nas Down”). Most artists struggle with creating a reasonable message embedded within the backdrop of a radio-friendly-slash-club-viable beat, but Cole does so with finesse.
Perhaps it’s due to the fact that he carried the brunt of the production on the project, so he knows how to tailor beats to exactly what he’s trying to say. On the Kendrick Lamar-assisted “Forbidden Fruit,” Cole takes simple bass guitars, splashes in A Tribe Called Quest sample and the result is a slick conquest for a girl’s affection. K-Dot lets Cole have his moment, knowing damn well he could’ve nosedived into the track and shredded it (a la A$AP Rocky’s “Fuckin’ Problems”).
J. Cole’s penchant for ’90s R&B is felt heavily on “Crooked Smile,” even inviting the legendary TLC into the fold to create what is arguably a man’s version of the Atlanta trio’s hit “Unpretty.” The upbeat anthem defines Cole to a T. He highlights his crooked smile to show that even in moments of imperfections, he manages to shine. Here’s a guy who had the entire game force-feeding the affections of Jay-Z onto him because of his Roc Nation ties, bringing moments of insecurity as he crafted his debut. While Hov did jump on one of Cole World’s less defining tracks (“Mr. Nice Watch”), a Jay-Z verse wasn’t needed this time around. J. Cole has proven that he’s great with or without a stamp of approval from the higher ups. That’s probably his most valuable asset outside of his ability to rhyme and make beats.
It’s not until Born Sinner nears its close that we begin to truly witness Cole’s vulnerability. On the aforementioned “Let Nas Down,” he details a career-defining moment involving Nas riddled in irony. To the tune of a sexy sax that interpolates Kanye West’s “Big Brother,” Cole discusses how Nas didn’t like his single and the news was broken to him by Jay-Z. It’s a slight slap in the face to Jay, considering Cole was more upset about letting Nas down. The title track closes the project and is an excellent summation of the work. “Born sinner, was never born to be perfect,” Cole says on the keys-heavy cut featuring James Fauntleroy.
While Born Sinner is J. Cole’s second full length album, his handful of mixtapes (The Come Up, The Warm Up, Friday Night Lights) and EPs (Truly Yours, Truly Yours 2) were practically albums, making this his seventh project. It feels like Cole is seasoned enough to complain about the woes of stardom while still bragging a little bit about the finer side of it. If there is one critique to be offered, it’s that his self-production errs on the side of redundant and he could stand a few super producer beats on his next project. Still, Born Sinner is a well rounded package from an artist who has fought tooth and nail to achieve his position in Rap. It’s about time someone has received what they’ve earned.
Best Song That Wasn’t the Single: The dark drum-filled opener “Villuminati.” Cole clearly started off strong this time, even twisting around the “Illuminati” to fit the scope of his Dreamville crew.
Best Listened To: While braggin’ like Hov…duh.
Idolator Score: 4/5
— Kathy Iandoli