For most rappers, it would be audacious to sample Biggie, compare themselves to Jay-Z, or to dedicate a track to Nas and yet on his sophomore album J. Cole does all three to great success. Born Sinner, out June 18th on Dreamville Records, is an opus filled completely with familiar J.Cole themes of inner conflict coupled with religious imagery and it is also head and shoulders above any hip hop release so far this year. Unlike his first album, Born Sinner carries a thematic darkness throughout and it results in some of the rapper’s best lines so far. On the opening track “Villuminati”, a hectic beat propelled by clattering drums, baleful strings and a Notorious B.I.G. sample, we hear Cole address homophobia, Trinidad James’ “All Gold Everything”, and even drop a “Boy Meets World” reference. In the first verse alone.
The whole album carries a darker tone than any of his previous releases from the cover art to the numerous gospel samples and church themed skits, going so far as to ask “Where’s Jermaine?”, a questioning skit about Cole’s alienation from his upbringing in Fayetteville, North Carolina. This is not to say that the album is inaccessible or anything short of an artistic triumph. Each song on the album would be a strong track on almost anyone else’s sophomore album so the stand outs on Born Sinner are especially potent with “Crooked Smile”, guest featuring TLC, being a pop ready hymn to imperfection and “Chaining Day” acting as an indictment of the materialism in the rap game today. Both of these however are secondary to what is indisputably the heaviest song on the album “Let Nas Down”. Biting the hook from Yeezy’s “Big Brother”, Cole vents about his freshman album and the experience of trying to make a radio friendly single. As he raps the intro, a play on “Nas Is Like” from Nas’ album “I Am…”, Cole lays out the story of his single “Work Out” and realizing after a phone call that he had let down one of his idols by selling out on his art just for a hit.
The only thing that remains to be seen is whether the album sees as much commercial success as it deserves. J. Cole has made one of the best hip hop albums in recent memories and despite guest appearances from names like TLC, James Fauntleroy and Kendrick Lamar, it is still very much a show about J. Cole. As much as he recalls his past in songs like “Land of the Snakes” or “Rich Niggaz”, it is clear that J. Cole has grown leaps and bounds as an artist since The Sideline Story. Be sure to cop Born Sinner; you won’t be disappointed.