When J. Cole dropped “Miss America “last November, he announced a January 2013 release date for his sophomore LP. Cole is a good rapper and a good producer, but we all knew that wasn’t going to happen. How was a guy who had so much trouble getting his debut album on shelves going to get a release date two months away with a song like this? He wasn’t, and he didn’t. Cole got pushed back five months, and despite his many talents, Born Sinner is often as bland as its title.
Again, Cole is a good rapper. He’s witty and he can turn a phrase if he’s really feeling like it. He’s especially good considering, like Krit, Cole produces almost all his own material. As always, that’s something to be admired. The unfortunate thing about Cole is that his production is sometimes hindered by his vocals. The reason Cole isn’t a better rapper is because he generally sounds like he’s scolding everyone in the vicinity, including himself. His jabs are more nuanced and better-natured those of someone like Lupe, but that shtick is getting stale.
If you’re sampling an incredible well-known, instantly recognizable Biggie song on your opening track, it had better be fucking awesome. “Villuminati” is a good song, but nothing special. Cole doesn’t do anything memorable with the sample; he seems to have included it as a tribute, so we’d know he didn’t steal the reference. Spoiler alert, Cole: we know you know who Big is. No new Illuminati references. The intro, like “LAnd of the Snakes,” “Trouble,” “Chaining Day,” and “Runaway” (another song based around an obvious reference that does nothing notable to flip the subject matter), is just too heavy handed to work.
To be sure, “Power Trip” is a great song, and not just because of Miguel. It’s largely Cole’s success, so it’s really a shame it didn’t get more airplay. The track comes early; Sinner doesn’t finally heat up until its eighth and ninth tracks, “Rich Niggaz” and “She Knows.” Their sound is reminiscent of Cole’s debut album—the same content, but on admittedly catchier songs. They’re catchier and they’re better because Cole is actually having fun. The crazy thing is that he seems to think when he’s making songs like this, he’s sacrificing something lyrically. He’s not. His thesis never changes, and fans are a lot more likely to listen when the song doesn’t feel like a chore.
The album’s second half continues much stronger than its first. Kendrick’s “me and my bitch” hook is incredibly refreshing. Cole gets TLC on a hook that somehow manages to sound organic (kudos Jermaine), and you know Fauntleroy sounds great on the outro. Even “Let Nas Down,” a song that could easily have been a sappy failure, is a rousing success. Unfortunately, Nas may also be the source of all Cole’s problems. Nas told Cole he hated “Work Out,” and that Cole was screwing up his responsibility to be a socially conscious rapper.
But not everyone can do what Nas can do. Cole is a smart guy—smarter than most of his peers, to be sure. That doesn’t mean he’s as good of a rapper or a storyteller as a legend. Similarities, of course. Cole is very lyrical, but Nas was and is successful because his voice can command a mic in ways that others can’t, and he has the storytelling skills to boot. Cole is, and I mean this in a totally respectable way, a lyrical dude who makes his own beats. “Work Out” is one of the only times Cole successfully pulled off the trick he was attempting on “Villuminati” and “Runaway.” Does it matter that it’s more radio-friendly if it sounds more natural? It’s an important question when Born Sinner sacrifices a lot of what made Sideline Story dope. Lyrical doesn’t have to mean you can’t play it on the radio. Haven’t we figured that out yet?
Written by Patrick Bierut (@mrchernobog)