The sounds of a church choir quickly followed by snapping snares and a heavy-nod at the Notorious B.I.G. Two years-ago today, this is what introduced people to J. Cole’s sophomore album, Born Sinner. This album would go on to be really the first time that Cole would discuss his handling of the level of fame he has attained. In that sense, this album is a lot like Drake’s second project, Thank Me Later. Similar in the sense of reflection and realization that this life of fame isn’t always bright. The ‘mo’ money, mo’ problems’ argument has been beaten to death by this point but J. Cole wants to give it a few more whacks for good measure.
The first song does what it should. It sets the darker tone for the ensuing tracklist and establishes the characters, the struggle and the direction. Cole uses the album to put himself in plenty of different positions of fame. Whether he is imagining what it would be like to succumb to the money and power or driving his points home with his own real-life scenarios, he is strongly representing the dichotomy of his lifestyle.
This album is also the exhibit for his production. Finishing up the basketball theme attached to his last few mixtapes and first LP (The Warm-Up, The Come-up, Friday Night Lights, and The Sideline Story), Born Sinner is a bold new direction for his sound. Full choirs, quick drums, simple synth rhythms and light piano keys represent a more mature and sophisticated Cole. The beats are much simpler and more easily listened to than your typical radio fare. It is clear that Cole’s focus is still what he is saying and he gives listeners a bevy of sounds to hear him talk over.
Cole is a top-tier wordsmith and this album is his best work in that department to date. Lyrically, there are times where his self-checking and reflection are worded in such a way that something so common, sounds exclusive to Cole. Take buying a chain for example. On ‘Chaining Day’, Cole raps about spending money foolishly to give off that perception of a lavish lifestyle. His first two bars are stated so meticulously that you can hear the comedic regret in his voice. “Look at me, pathetic n*gga, this chain that I bought, You mix greed, pain and fame, this is heinous result.” Later on, on ‘Rich N*iggaz’ Cole addresses this topic of senseless spending and how money ruins more than just your sense of appreciation again. This time, he does it in a much more serious manner. His tone is much more relaxed and the beat is laden with the sound of whiney-chimes. His insight into the future of this lifestyle is greatly paired with his own acknowledgment of how extreme he is making it all sound; but he is worried nonetheless.
His songs all work, to a point. His preaching and insight don’t have the impact of his less serious songs because of his crafty lyricism. The songs that hit the hardest are the ones like, ‘Let Nas Down’. Sincere and not worried about how he is expressing his emotion through wordiness you get a much stronger sense of self from Cole. He is teaching humility with this song and teaches everything from being humble to respectful on much of the album. Some of his other songs can sound like he is trying too hard to impress you while simultaneously trying to get his point across, which works, but only to a point. That being said, Cole makes sure to never waste a bar. Each line cohesively works with the next, even if they occasionally lean misogynistic or are playful metaphors, which every artist is entitled to.
There is no discrediting Cole’s ability as either a lyricist or a producer based on this album. It isn’t perfect, but it is progress — and a lot of it. He is passionate about his craft and has an understanding that many artists don’t. People listen to and are affected by the music he makes. This drives him to always be saying something, even when there is very little to be said on a particular subject, Cole will say what he wants to say and more. It is a trait to be admired in a musician today and though we may all be born sinners, Cole’s music will likely help to create some conversation and allow some people to learn from the lessons life taught him. Cole knows that being famous isn’t everything and he emphasizes in fact, that it is nothing if you lose everything else along the way. That is impossible not to respect.