After all is said and done and the dust finally settles sometime after the June 18 releases of Kanye West’s Yeezus and J. Cole’s Born Sinner, most critics will be quick to point out Kanye’s unique progressive vision and make the claim that his stands as the better overall album — which might be true if that’s the way you judge things.
As a pure hip-hop experience, however, Born Sinner is a superior album that shows immense growth in Cole’s talents as a rapper and even more so as a producer. It’s far from perfect, but the North Carolina native has sharpened all his strengths on his sophomore outing and created a body of work that represents nostalgic appreciation as well as a refreshing outlook on a genre he’s clearly passionate about.
Cole opens Born Sinner on the unapologetic boast track “Villuminati,” a song where he compares himself to Jay-Z and 2Pac and drops an intricate line that might be almost too witty for the general public. The track is balanced under a sinister baseline that makes you just want to hop in your car and roll down the hardest block in town.
Not that I’m condoning that in any way.
On the lead single “Power Trip,” Cole delivers a story of obsession and the price of fame that’s brought together with silky vocals on the hook from Miguel. It’s a moody and at times dangerous song with a faint Motown influence on the beat giving it a sleek throwback aura.
The standout track comes about halfway through album on “Rich Niggaz,” one of Cole’s most personal offerings shining over an airy beat that brings to mind a more emotional take on late ‘90s Darkchild production. Cole also brings his absentee father into the fold and drops some heart-wrenching lines in the song when he raps “I ain’t bad as that nigga plus dog I’m a grown man now / I ain’t mad at that nigga / but if a plane crashed and it only killed his lames ass / I’d be glad it’s that nigga, nigga.”
Equipped with a smooth Ronnie Foster-turned-Tribe Called Quest sample on “Forbidden Fruit” featuring Kendrick Lamar, Cole spends part of the track recreating the Adam and Eve story then switches his subject matter and even decides to take a little jab at Mr. West through a cleverly placed Boyz II Men reference when he raps “I’ma drop the album same day as Kanye / Just to show the boys the man now like Wanya.”
Cole also takes the inspirational route late in the album on the TLC-assisted “Crooked Smile” which seems somewhat out of character but signifies a moment on Born Sinner when the rapper goes from being deeply insecure about his imperfections to completely embracing them in the pseudo-remake of TLC’s 1999 single “Unpretty.”
Another highlight of the album is the jazz-infused “Let Nas Down,” a track Cole uses to vent some of his unsettled emotions after hearing about Nas’ reaction to his hit single “Work Out” on his debut album Cole World: The Sideline Story. He spends a portion of the song explaining how big a Nas fan he was growing up and having his approval before dropping the major radio single which transformed him from a hungry underground rapper into a full-blown mainstream artist.
Cole has definitely found his lane with Born Sinner and it should also be noted that as tight as his raps are on his second album, the production is even better. Considering he almost single-handedly created the entire album from scratch, Cole should be recognized as not only one of the hottest young rappers in the game but also a truly gifted beat-maker.
Born Sinner shows Cole in his finest hour with complete creative control of his work all the way through, honest moments of depression and happiness pull the album together over poignant production and the result is easily one of the best hip-hop albums of the year.