J. Cole stands in the shadow of legends. In the buildup to his debut, he was compared to Nas. Born Sinner, his second album, opens with a sample of Biggie's "Juicy." Then, within the first song, he likens himself to Jay-Z, tips his hat to 'Pac, and namedrops Beyonce.
There's another name that keeps coming up on Born Sinner: Kanye West. Cole moved up his release date to coincide with Yeezus in part because of his respect for West. "I worked too hard to come a week later after Kanye West drops an amazing album," Cole told Billboard.com. "It'd be like, 'Oh and J.Cole dropped too, a week later.' Nah. I'm going to go see him on that date. He's the greatest. So it's like, I'm a competitor by nature so it was instant, it wasn't even a thought."
It's not quite Curtis vs. Graduation -- Cole is playing on a smaller field. Still, West's influence on Born Sinner is undeniable. J. Cole's production style in particular owes much to College Dropout-era West. Gospel choir, soul samples, and staccato drums -- all elements previously associated with Kanye West -- form the backdrop for Born Sinner. While Yeezy was busy flexing experimental muscle on Yeezus, Cole was rummaging his archives for inspiration.
Born Sinner owes as much to West as it does to Kendrick Lamar. The spiritual undercurrent of good kid m.A.A.d city immediately raised the bar for contemporaries, and Cole is a direct beneficiary of that standard. Fittingly, K. Dot is the only other rapper deemed suitable for a spot on Born Sinner. He drops by on the ATCQ-inspired "Forbidden Fruit" and steals the show with just a few lines. Lamar's brief cameo aside, J. Cole holds down Born Sinner solo.
It makes sense. Born Sinner is, ultimately, about J.Cole's struggle for identity, success, acceptance, love, respect. Like the real struggle, the album is a solitary journey. And like any journey, there are obstacles and stumbling blocks along the way.
"Let Nas Down" is an insider account of Nas's disapproval of J. Cole's early single "Work out." The jazz-tinged backdrop serves as the perfect soundtrack to Cole's confessional* rhymes. "Apologies to OGs for sacrificing my art," Cole raps. "I'm here for a greater purpose I knew right from the start/I'm just a man of the people, not above, but equal/and for the greater good I walk amongst the evil." He's being too hard on himself, but it's good to know that he cares..
J. Cole has never actually had a bonafide hit, and Born Sinner won't change that. The songs are half as infectious as, but twice as self-aware. What's new is that Born Sinner is more ambitious than Cole World: The Sideline Story. An adept storyteller, Cole shines when he's weaving heartfelt narratives ("Runaway"). When he attempts complex social commentary it's as exciting as the hum of a fridge ("Villuminati").
Born Sinner's landmark moments are small, but the implications -- that hip-hop can be a positive force for respecting cultural vanguards, interrogating conspicuous consumption, and acknowledging its own hostility towards women -- are huge.Top Tracks
- "Chaining Day"
- "Forbidden Fruit"
* As if Kanye West's influence wasn't obvious enough, "Let Nas Down" also nods to "Big Brother" via No ID.