Review: J. Cole’s ‘Born Sinner’ Is Hip-Hop’s (New) Saving Grace

Album Reviews

Physically, Jermaine Cole is still the same supreme rap specimen he was when he dropped The Warm Up in 2009: Light complexion, baby Brillo ‘fro, 6’3” stature and—as he’ll note in his most recent single, “Crooked Smile”—eyebrows that are “thick as hell.” Fast forward four years and the St. John’s alum who was shelling out $1,700 with his roommate for an apartment and fishing for acceptance from his mentor/boss Jay-Z is now more capable of validating his own talents, sans Sallie Mae reminders.

Tonight (June 6), J. Cole is presiding over Manhattan’s School of Visual Arts Theatre, explaining to a mix of journalists, tastemakers, label personnel and lucky fans that he didn’t know what a “single” was while crafting his major league introduction, Cole World: The Sideline Story. “I’m not saying this is the one but this is what I’m talkin’ ‘bout,” Cole recalled of Jay’s reaction to “Can’t Get Enough,” the summertime anthem featuring Trey Songz that was released as his official second single.

He’ll go on with his long-winded narrative, laced with more spot-on Shawn Carter impersonations, not only to set up his sophomore effort Born Sinner, but more particularly the track that has generated the most buzz based on its provocative title.

About an hour later, you’ll arrive at track 15 of the 16-track offering, “Let Nas Down,” witnessing vivid imagery of heaven’s gates, doves and sunshine on a movie screen projection after assimilating to dark montages of Cole’s face, red smoke and evil-looking cherubim, the appropriate visual aids for what is predominantly a dark, dark project. The song itself, whose title was initially rumored to be “I Disappointed Nas,” culminates Cole’s journey from insecure rap rookie to overachieving rap star, highly sensitive to his idols’ opinions. He details how his calculated attempts at a made-for-radio record resulted in a disapproving finger wag from the Illmatic MC.

More often, though, Cole sizes himself up to his lanky mentor. From out the gate, he opens with the not-so-humble-bragging “Villuminati,” mirroring himself after his Roc Nation boss as he’ll do several times throughout the LP (“Allow me to re-introduce myself/My name is Cole”). He’s unapologetic about it—“Sometimes I brag like Hov,” he announces—yet as a producer, his progress is more reminiscent of a pre-Dropout ‘Ye, whose balls-grabbing ego allowed him to paint his own sonic masterpieces. Whether infusing the bounce into interludes like “Ain’t That Some Shit” and “Chaining Day” or teetering into the R&B bedroom with the soft-core “Power Trip” and “LAnd of the Snakes,” the beatsmanship of Cole has never sounded more consistent and carefully orchestrated.

Lyrically, Born Sinner is not the verbal jungle gym that 2011’s Sideline Story was. With a cohesive theme and a newfound sense of maturity, Cole lets go of his demons on wax like a serial robber in a precinct. He goes on-record about cheating on his girl with the “bad bitches” of the industry on “Runaway” and being envious about trust fund babies on “Rich N*ggaz.” Interpolated with gospel choir cameos and playful skits (he even finds his own ad-lib!), the album seems to tear a page from good kid, m.A.A.d city by Kendrick Lamar (who provides a rap-talk hook on “Forbidden Fruit,” which samples Ronnie Foster’s “Mystic Brew”). Yet there’s no doubt that Born Sinner is unequivocally Cole.

Born Sinner serves as J. Cole’s rite of passage into being rap’s potentially lethal contender. There are no filler tracks trying too hard to be radio singles or records made for the club; the curse of the sophomore slump eludes him. It’s a pensive piece straight through, preaching to the undergrads who could barely afford college or the cheaters trying to fight temptations but most importantly, the individual trying to save him from himself. —Adelle Platon (@adelleplaton)