"I'm a born sinner, but I'll die better than that …" The very first statement of the album sets the tone for the entirety and marks the start of the "repentance" of J. Cole. His debut album, Sideline Story — though well-received — was admittedly tainted by his desire for a hit single. This "original sin" committed in his first attempt has been more than compensated for in J. Cole's sophomore album: Born Sinner.
This album is without any weak links; from the producing to the lyrical flow and meaningful content, J. Cole is running on all cylinders in his latest LP. He returns to the essence of the artistry; he's no longer in pursuit of "making it big," but cementing his place as rap royalty. Casual fans may not know, but J. Cole had originally planned to release his album on June 25, but once Kanye West officially chose to release his sixth solo album, Yeezus, on June 18, J. Cole — in a bold move — decided to release Born Sinner on the same day. Squaring up to one of the giants in all of music is a move that emanates confidence and shows the amount of trust that Cole has in his creation. If Cole manages to outsell Kanye, his brash act won't be in vain.
Highlights of the album:
Trouble: This track epitomizes the struggle that man experiences in the face of temptation. It features visceral lyrics outlining anecdotes of trying times — many of which are due to his relatively new found fame. The hard-hitting wordplay is balanced out by a subtle — but ever-present — choir, repeating the words: "Trouble's coming". The song's bridge (Take you to the Promised Land/you don't want problems, I promise, man) captures the core message of the track: Fame and notoriety are always escorted by the ultra-enticing temptation.
Runaway: In, arguably, his deepest track of the album, J. Cole depicts 3 distinct moral dilemmas that are bound by the theme of abandoning something — or someone — that is portrayed as positive, but is rife with negatives when seen from a different perspective. Again we see Cole wrestling with himself; he closes up the third verse with: "If I follow my heart to save myself, could I run away from 50 mil. Like Dave Chappelle?" His inner angst is being sublimated into the whole album, but this song especially. The song ends with harmonic strings overtaking the claps and drums that dominated throughout; an encouraging sign.
Crooked Smile: The lone sentimental song on this record, Cole dedicates four and a half minutes to the women of the world; with the help of TLC, J. Cole aims to boost the self-worth of female listeners by urging them to be true to themselves and never allowing someone else to determine their value as an individual. He wants them to accept their imperfections; to be proud of their "crooked smile." As has been seen in past tracks, he employs the melodic, soul-uplifting voice of the choir to elevate his message to even greater heights.
Let Nas Down: This is the closest we may come to actually feeling J. Cole. In what might possibly be his most vulnerable moments of the entire album, Cole traces a time-line that begins before the release of his debut album through to the present. The penultimate moment is when Cole heard that Nas was disappointed in him for releasing the radio-friendly hit "Can't Get Enough." His intense words are held up by saxophone and faint bass riffs, all tied together by aggressive drum kicks. Cole depicts himself as a martyr for the "greater good", who is trying to rescue hip-hop; he captures this succinctly at the end of the last verse: "This is for the n**** that said that Hip-Hop was dead/I went to Hell to resurrect it/How could you fail to respect it …" "Let Nas Down" is J. Cole at his most passionate.
Don't let these "highlights" deceive you; it was difficult for me to narrow it down to these four. I mean it when I say nearly every song is great.
So often we see celebrities hoisted to a level where they are immune to imperfections and blemishes, but J. Cole accepts them wholeheartedly, admitting to mistakes, confessing to giving into temptation, and questioning his own motives. Through the fame and glamour, Cole hasn't forgotten that he was born a "sinner," though he doesn't rest on this distinction. He aims to become more; to improve; to be better. In this, he embodies the struggle of the common man — something we can all identify with. This album represents our longing to rise above our propensity to do wrong, repent for our mistakes and embrace our faults, but refusing to let them define who we are as individuals.