Confidence and doubt. Dignity and regret. Humbleness and recklessness. Those are just some of the emotions explored on J. Cole’s sophomore album, Born Sinner.
The album serves as a brutally honest admission and explanation for some of the decisions he has made in both his public and his personal life since rising to fame. It is a balancing act between temptation and the consequences that follow. It is, in his own words, an opportunity to reintroduce himself.
On one hand, he does not shy away from relishing the life of a rap star and the perks that come with it, but on the other, he is shameful of the path he took to achieve it and its impact on his personal life.
“It’s much darker this time,” Cole says in the first line of the album.
While there is a natural progression from beginning to end, Cole is not lying when he announces the tone of the project.
After using the first couple of tracks to set the stage, the darkness emerges with “Runaway,” a solemn confession to his committed and patient girlfriend of not being faithful. The track transitions smoothly into “She Knows,” giving Cole a chance to showcase his regret. He then continues to question his journey up to this point in his career with “Rich N****z.”
“Henny don’t really kill the pain no more. Now I’m Cobain with a shotgun aimed at my brain cause I can’t maintain no more. Tad bit extreme, I know. Money can’t save your soul.”
Following the theme of the album, he never directly apologizes for anything he has done or said. He simply describes the situation for what it is, expresses regret and learns to embrace whom God made him to be and the purpose he was given. This is apparent in the TLC featured single, “Crooked Smile,” a song about accepting the imperfections that make each person unique.
Throughout Born Sinner, Cole is constantly reflecting on the issues faced in his career and in his relationship and how the two intersect. It all culminates with the final verse of the album, in which he personifies the Hip Hop genre as a woman, as many artists have done in the past.
“True when I told you, ‘You the only reason why I don’t flip and go insane.’ My roof in the pouring rain, you knew me before the fame, don’t lose me the more I change, no. Just grow with me, go broke you go broke with me. I smoke you gon’ smoke with me. Woman’s curse since birth, man lead her to the hearse, I go Bobby, you go Whitney, damn.”
Cole knows that his first album, littered with clear-cut radio attempts and old music, was a disappointment to most of his fans and even one of his idols, Nas. He understands that “selling out” for fame and fortune is the wrong way to approach his music. He recognizes that the notoriety achieved from the success of his debut pulled him into a destructive lifestyle that damaged his relationship with the people he cares most about, including himself.
This album, more than anything, is Cole’s way of rectifying all of that. It is the album that he wanted to make. It is a convincing statement that musically, he can do it his way and still be happy, regardless of acknowledgment. It is an admirable assertion that personally, he owes it to the people around him to live a better life. Ultimately, it is the realization that learning from mistakes is more important than the mistakes themselves.
As the first part of my review suggests, I definitely think the album works conceptually and sonically. With several listens, it is evident that a lot of thought went into the project.
Amber Coffman’s role in the background of “She Knows” is a great example of how the album flows in a logical manner. The foreshadowing of “Chaining Day” in “Rich N****z” is another.
The production of this album is light-years ahead of his debut. The most impressive displays of growth are shown in “Trouble” and “Let Nas Down.” Lyrically, Cole steps another foot forward, leaving the inconsistent bars from his first album in the dust.
One criticism that I have seen many people point out, and I agree with this, is that the album has no real standout tracks. I don’t even think it’s a stretch to say that the highs on Cole World: The Sideline Story were greater than the highs on Born Sinner.
Having said that, I do enjoy each and every song on the album, so I can forgive the lack of standout records.
My major complaint is that the narrative has no climax. It certainly builds toward “Rich N****z,” and it absolutely builds in the opposite direction toward the closing, self-titled track of the album, “Born Sinner.” But there isn’t a specific event that suddenly makes Cole start to change his ways. The middle section of the album containing the transition is my favorite section of the album; I just never really felt the breaking point that he presumably reached.
The Kendrick Lamar feature, “Forbidden Fruit,” was a bit of a disappointment as well. I like the concept of the song, but I expected more from two of my favorite artists out right now.
It’s also interesting to consider how their unreleased track, “Temptations,” could have fit into this album. I know they are probably saving it for their collaboration project, but it follows the theme of the album perfectly and a verse from Kendrick would have provided a nice change of pace.
Still, the cohesion, production and lyricism of this project put it on the same level of his highly regarded mixtapes, The Warm Up and Friday Night Lights.
I am not sure what the long-term impact of Born Sinner will be, but it’s hard to deny that it’s a step in the right direction for Cole, provided the struggles he faced early in his career.
Thanks for reading and let me know what you think of the album in the comment section below.
Review by dedication3