Here in the UK, J. Cole is an emcee that isn’t the household name he seems to be in America. I’ve always felt he would have been more revered had he been doing his thing ten years earlier, and that’s not to say he isn’t successful in 2013 (if anything he is in his prime) holding his own in a sales-battle with Kanye West, but he has always combined a modern approach with nods to the music that molded him. You can see why Jay-Z signed him up to Roc Nation, as he is definitely of that post-Millenium era where lyricism and charisma were required in equal measure to truly stand out. “Born Sinner” itself is a renowned line from The Notorious BIG’s opus “Juicy”, and with guests such as TLC and Kendrick Lamar featured, this is a decidedly more grown-up record than “Yeezus”, which is ironic given the age difference.
As adept at rapping as J Cole is, he is in fact a more than capable producer too. “Born Sinner” features self-produced beats throughout, with only the interludes seeing Cole’s name omitted from the credits. Granted, there’s no clear standout beats, which gives “Born Sinner” a cohesive feel, but it allows his lyrics to shine. Rarely are you treated to a head-nodder, but more complementary pieces of music that invite you to follow every word J. Cole is sharing. The opener “Villuminati” doesn’t quite maximise the ‘Born Sinner’ Biggie Smalls sample to the fullest, but as a showcase for Cole’s innate ability to ride snares (a forgotten art these days) it serves as a strong introduction. “Rich Niggaz” would usually be floss-rap at it’s most cringe-worthy, but sees Cole spit vitriolic hate towards those abusing money and not making the most of their time in the limelight (even shouting out forgotten rapper Dana Dane). Kendrick Lamar provides his best Devin The Dude impression on the hook for “Forbidden Fruit”, which utilises the same Ronnie Foster sample found on A Tribe Called Quest’s classic “Electric Relaxation”, giving Cole a mellow backdrop to work with. The beat isn’t the only thing that may have you feeling deja vu though, as Cole delivers two verses in a tone that sounds more like Joe Budden than J. Cole. Definitely odd. Meanwhile, “Land of the Snakes” may sound like an Immortal Technique-style political rant, but is actually the harmless adventures of a young man enjoying life despite his embarrassing “sharing a bed room with his brother” lifestyle. Whilst thematically worthwhile, it doesn’t quite reach the levels of Reef the Lost Cauze’s “How You Lose Your Mind”. That is perhaps the one flaw in J. Cole’s character, a lack of humour. He does however make up for it with smart wordplay that will have you thinking long after the Outkast sample on “Land of the Snakes” has faded out. Throughout “Born Sinner” there is an honest quality to J. Cole that reminds me of Blu on his underrated gem “Below The Heavens”.
Unlike Blu, there is perhaps a little too much unnecessary cursing, but if like myself you are a seasoned rap listener, you’ll likely be able to ignore it. It’s a minor aspect, but it is noticeable all the same. Nothing can take away the fact that J. Cole is supremely talented, possessing a mundane realism in his lyrics that draws you in, that you can associate with. This is best exemplified by “Let Nas Down”, whereby Cole shares a true tale where he had to satisfy his label’s desire to provide a radio record (2011’s “Work That”), but Cole wanted to maintain his integrity. This inevitably leaked back to producer No ID and Nas himself, when the track in question was let loose. J. Cole is a huge Nas fan, and it shows in his attention to detail, but Cole wasn’t happy that despite satisfying others and even himself, his idol, Mr Escobar, thought it was weak. The track documents the battle between the label (represented by Jay-Z) and the art (represented by Nas), which is ingenious given the real-life rivalry between Jay and Nas historically, and I’m sure is something that no matter how famous you get, all emcees experience. It’s not quite a classic song, musically it could be more interesting, but it proves again just how smart a writer J. Cole is.
It is strange to hear such a personal album in 2013 that comes with a buzz around it, and although the Jay-Z links help, you have to take your hat off to J. Cole for presenting an honest, intricate record. Some of the singing on “Runaway Pride” could have been avoided and there is a ton of references to other artists akin to The Game’s habit of name-dropping, but for the most part J. Cole has proved that hype can be met. One thing’s for sure, he won’t be eating sardines for dinner any time soon.