Honestly, I didn’t listen to J. Cole’s debut album, Cole World. Oh, I’m a fan of his, many would argue, classic mixtapes (as classic as a mixtape could be): The Come Up, The Warm Up, and Friday Night Lights. But none of the singles from his album moved, touched, or inspired me like so many of his previous tracks. In fact, his songs were too structured and felt soulless; so, I decided to skip the album all together. I didn’t even download it; I didn’t want to hear him flop after falling off.
About a year or so passes, when I first hear some snippets from his new album, Born Sinner, and was intrigued because I know Cole could rap. Then he dropped, “Power Trip,” featuring Miguel. Not sure what kind of synergy those two have but they make hits together. I found myself randomly crooning, “Got me up all night…” and with each sing-a-long, my anticipation grew. Thankfully, J. Cole delivers one of the best albums of the year thus far, no debate necessary. While he may not get the same attention that Kanye and Jay receive with each new album, he definitely positions himself to move into that league after this dark, sinful recount of Cole’s World.
He opens the album with “It’s way darker this time,” and I immediately get hyped, hoping that he’s back on his “Simba” swag. And then the beat drops. I’m surprised I didn’t sprain my neck muscles. No more than a minute into the album and he’s already referenced Hov, Pac, homophobia, Topanga from Boy Meets World fame, Trinidad James, hoes, and Rah Digga. He then addresses current social issues and the tension between good and evil (THEME), pleading, “please give me my soul.” And in the last verse, when he addresses his mistake with his first weed plate album, he immediately regains my full respect.
The next track finds Cole with a playful flow while damaging a classic Outkast sample. He details his journey from sharing a bedroom with his brother to skipping church for sex (THEME). In the last verse, he shares a chance encounter with a woman he one-nighted, and then avoided all her calls. And in that moment, her smirk crystallizes for him that he too is a snake, the same kind that he rapped about avoiding in the chorus. Cole World when the mirror reflects the truth.
His interlude, “Mo Money” demonstrates a simple fact: blacks and people of color “don’t know money” and “money control niggas, and whites control money.” Short, concise, thought-provoking, and not one bar wasted. He’s hasn’t missed yet.
Spoke too soon. This “Trouble” track has some dope lines, “I’m Koopa, never been the Mario [marrying] type,” but overall doesn’t have the same knock and excitement as the previous tracks. Thankfully, Cole redeems himself with “Runaway.” He laments the dilemma that plagues most men: the desire to settle down versus the allure of the hoes. Cole blames his inability to settle down on his age, dreams, yet recognizes that “brave souls [are] reduced to cowardice” when they choose to runaway, often leaving a good girl. Another track that makes one nod one’s head with the tight lyrics and a simple beat. At the same time, it highlights Cole’s willingness to share his ponderings openly. He continues this dilemma with “She Knows,” but misses with one, which places the blame on the hoes that know he has a lady back home.
On the next track, “Rich Niggaz,” Cole shares his dislike for those with money, but the chorus of “how much for your soul” demonstrates his fear that he will become one of those rich ones, best exemplified in the line, “One bitch don’t feel the same no more and Henny don’t really kill the pain no more.” He ends the verse with a Cobain reference because he foresees the difficulty in maintaining old Jermaine. He then teams up with Kendrick Lamar (no don’t get hyped like I did when I saw the feature, K. Dot only raps the chorus) for “Forbidden Fruit,” which flips the Tribe Called Quest Ronnie Foster’s “Mystic Brew” into a smooth, lavish baseline that allows him to brag about being the best. While there is nothing new or exciting here, the track still knocks. Similarly, he thinks about the guilt he feels as a “result of greed, pain, and fame” on “Chaining Day.” Cool concept and while it has been done countless times, his rendition thumps.
The most talked about song on the album, “Let Nas Down,” is a true recount of Cole’s frustration when Cole heard that Nas was disappointed by his biggest single to date, “Work Out.” Cole thought that Nas would understand the pressures of conforming to a major record label’s demand for a hit single; he immaturely jabs at “Oochie Wally.” More than anything, the song shows that Cole does not want his music to get away from his artistic essence, the reason he started rapping. Dope concept and once again Cole opens up to the audience that allows for them to connect in a meaningful way. And he wraps the album up with “Born Sinner,” which is the Cliff Notes to his album: he’s traversing this tricky road of fame with all of its money and easy women, which trying to maintain who he is.
Overall, I really dig this album because of the openness that he displays. Eddie Murphy, pre-kids movies when he wore patented leather jumpsuits and cussed like it was going out of style, joked that his first few jokes were all about taking a shit because that was all that he had done at the time; it was his reality. J. Cole, throughout Born Sinner, shares his reality, which compromises of one-night standing, rhyming words that detail those experiences, and then profiting off his “years of sinning and fake repentances.” Well done on this album, but Cole please know that the fans will be looking for growth on the next one.