In the early seconds of “Villuminati,” Born Sinner’s opening track, J. Cole warns us listeners that “it’s way darker this time.” The ground trodden thus far by the North Carolina rapper has been muddy, to be sure — rags-to-riches disillusionment, collegiate heartbreak, materialistic malaise — but comparatively spotless, when considered alongside the conscience-crushing narratives offered up by peers like Kendrick Lamar, Big K.R.I.T., and even Yelawolf. But as ominous orchestral peals rumble in the distance and a clattering beat picks up steam, it appears that we may have the baby-faced underdog mistaken. Or, at the very least, we’re not in “Workout” territory any more. “Sometimes I brag like Hov,” the original Roc Nation signee goes on to boast. “Sometimes I’m real like ‘Pac.” There you have it — the two themes of Cole’s sophomore album, laid out front and center. To recap: Born Sinner is going to cover some heavy stuff, and it’s going to solidify Jermaine Cole’s rightful seat at the hip-hop pantheon alongside Hov, ‘Pac, and Nas (more on the last one later).
No more than 90 seconds pass before this lofty mission encounters its first hurdle.
“My verbal AK slay faggots
And I don’t mean no disrespect whenever I say faggot, okay faggot?
Don’t be so sensitive
If you want to get fucked in the ass
That’s between you and whoever else’s dick it is
Pause, maybe that line was too far
Just a little joke to show you how homophobic you are.”
Okay, so to some extent, maybe openly acknowledging rap’s latent homophobia is “keeping it real ” in the ‘Pacian sense. But seriously? Would Tupac Shakur (or his hologram) call someone a “faggot,” briefly offer a disclaimer that he means no offense by using the word “faggot,” tell the person he called “faggot” that they shouldn’t be mad for being called a “faggot” (because being upset at being called “faggot” suggests a latent homophobia, in much the same way as people who get upset for being called an “retarded” share a collective disdain for people with disabilities), and throw in a stale words-as-weapons metaphor, all in one verse? There are some solid points buried deep down in the wreckage of Cole’s seven-bar pileup, but you’ll have to sift through a great, big, ambivalent pile of solecisms in order to get to them. As it turns out, that holds true for the vast majority of Born Sinner.
Having devoted the past six releases outlining his “dollar to a dream” story in great detail (though, make no mistake, you’ll be reminded of it plenty on this album), J. Cole now focuses his attention on more pressing moral topics: namely, that ever-persistent struggle between a decadent hip-hop lifestyle and the permanent satisfaction to be found in a committed relationship. “Trouble,” “Runaway,” and “She Knows” investigate this subject consecutively; the last of the three is the most compelling, with Cole conjuring scenes of strip-club temptation involving civil rights leader (and confirmed adulterer) Martin Luther King, Jr., all to the coos of a muffled Cults sample. The gorgeous-sounding “Chaining Day,” meanwhile, explores the consequences of keeping up lavish facades: “Money short so this jewelry is like a weave,” Cole raps, “Meant to deceive/ And hear niggas say, ‘I see you.’”
There are a few other standouts. The chilly Miguel collaboration “Power Trip” just might be the catchiest song about stalking someone since Rockwell dropped “Somebody’s Watching Me” nearly 30 years ago. “Land of the Snakes” is nice too, if only for the beat: a direct rip from Outkast’s “Da Art of Storytellin’ (Part 1).” But for the most part, Cole’s offerings are pretty bland; if the nondescript piano on snoozy tracks like “Crooked Smile” and “Born Sinner” don’t put you to sleep, then the slow, painful drip of good-guy aphorisms like “Love yourself girl, or nobody will!” and “No need to fix what God already put his paintbrush on” should do the trick just fine. And of course, filler abounds: a Kerney Thomas skit here, a Middle-Eastern-tinged snippet, “Ain’t That Some Shit (Interlude),” there. They’re neither amusing nor contributive to the album as a whole, but they’re there anyway.
Ironically enough, the most fulfilling track on this album is called “Let Nas Down.” As the title suggests, it’s Cole’s account of the day he heard second-hand (through famous producer No ID) that Nas wasn’t feeling “Workout.” Mournful saxophone skronks perforate a simple snare beat as the rapper lets his anxieties spill forth: the pressure from Jay-Z to release a hit single, the necessity of achieving success for the sake of his pride and family, and most importantly, the despair of letting down a man whose raps were taped to your bedroom wall. It’s courageous without being self-congratulatory, humbling but still unabashedly ballsy: the first — and only — time that Born Sinner truly transcends its referentiality to forge a new identity.