Opinion: Kanye’s ‘Yeezus’ And J. Cole’s ‘Born Sinner’ Separate The Almighty From The Lesser

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Stacy-Ann Ellis / June 19, 2013

Yeezus and Born Sinner address religion in vastly different ways

On June 18, 2013, the music world received the Word.

Fayettnam’s rap torchbearer J. Cole and hip-hop’s most boisterous and tortured demigod Kanye West chose the same day to pluck on spiritual heartstrings, yet they have two totally different messages to deliver. In many ways ‘Ye and Cole—and their competing albums Yeezus and Born Sinner, respectively—are on opposite sides of the sanctuary.

Kanye West’s Yeezus is 10 tracks of wrath, indulgence and retribution. Production help from Daft Punk, Mike Dean, No I.D., Travi$ Scott and others give tracks like “On Sight” and “Bound 2” some bounce, but there’s a struggle to find the common place between the man raging into the mic and the millions of us—some eagerly, some hesitantly—pressing play.

Yeezus’ most blasphemous title, “I Am A God,” finds Kanye spitting orders to his servants over a pulsing, demonized beat, while claiming he’s the “only rapper compared to Michael.” It’s oxymoronic in that he acknowledges that God’s is an all-powerful being, but then there’s the King of Pop. “I know He’s the most high,” he raps confidently, “but I am a close high.”

It’s a drastic difference from the idol worship from the six-foot-some-odd self-proclaimed born sinner kneeling on the other side of the altar. On his sophomore LP, J. Cole, the everlasting voice box for the underdog, uses 16 tracks to ’fess up to his vices, relish in his triumphs, battle demons and pay homage to the greats who’ve lit his path.

“Long live the idols, may they never be your rivals/Pac was like Jesus, Nas wrote the Bible,” he spits on “Let Nas Down,” an apology of sorts for pandering to pressures for a gimmicky single.

Jermaine’s latest effort is rooted in moody music; gloomy and sunny instrumentals are stitched together by the sopranos, altos and tenors of a Sunday choir. The beats characterize Born Sinner’s heaven-and-hell aesthetic. Lyrically, he questions the purity of humanity (“Runaway”), admits that even the righteous cave in to temptation (“She Knows”), embraces his imperfections (“Crooked Smile”) and leaves his heart at the altar during the album’s benediction (“Born Sinner”). He’s a flawed man recognizing and reconciling with his own faults. He’s still figuring things out.

Stardom has served Cole well and for a hefty portion of the album, he’s trying to find his way out of the Bible’s forbidden garden (“LAnd of the Snakes,” “Forbidden Fruit”) where he “took a lil’ sip” of the “apple juice falling from her lips.” In this same grassy oasis—and without a trace of regret—Yeezy is firmly planted on his throne, filling his own goblet with cider. While it may seem that Yeezus has it all—from supernatural sex (“[The] pussy had me floating”) to Maybach keys to his (damn) croissants—his soul has gone M.I.A. You can even hear it in the industrial beats (“Bound 2″ is the lone chipmunk sample on here). Save for moments of vulnerability like the relationship-mourning “Guilt Trip” and “Blood On The Leaves,” on Yeezus Kanye seems lost in his own smog of omnipotence. Meanwhile for J. Cole, by album’s end, he’s found himself.

Two gifted wordsmiths. Two varying relationships with the concept of higher power. Born Sinner shows us a man who is “of the people, not above but equal,” while Yeezus hammers into our ears all the reasons why he’s above us. —Stacy-Ann Ellis