J. Cole – Born Sinner

I know that I’m late as hell with this, and that by now, everyone who planned on checking this album has probably already done so. Not that I write to produce a useful up/down listening/buying recommendation, but I’d like to avoid writing about 3 month old music. Especially when the music doesn’t warrant the thorough review that such a time-frame could allow. To be honest, I’m just doing this to bookend my listening experience. It’s an album that I never need to hear again. I just want to write my thoughts down, delete it, then be done with it forever. Surely one of my 5 RSS subscribers (links are at the bottom of the right column!) is wondering, if the album was so bad, why did I spend so much time listening to it?

Well, superhumanly intelligent subscriber, I didn’t actually spend as much of that time listening as you might think. Born Sinner is one of those albums that took 3-5 listens to begin growing on me but quit growing shortly after starting. J Cole just isn’t that all good to me. In any way, shape, or fashion. His beats are just pretty good, his lyricism isn’t as good as he thinks it is, and his songwriting still needs work. Out of those, the songwriting is what killed my vibe the most. His writing style is unfocused to the point that his verses often seem like completely separate thoughts mashed together. Most of his songs are either about his own rise to fame (ugh) or the seedier aspects of male-female relationships. I appreciate that J. Cole seems to be fascinated by the ideas of infidelity and the sometimes selfish reasons that people have for pursuing relationships, but his lack of depth relegates these topical songs to simple descriptions. Compound that with his lack of lyricism and I start getting very bored. It shouldn’t be this easy to zone out while listening to new hip-hop.

The result of this Born Sinner induced narcolepsy is that creating an informed opinion on the album took a lot longer than I expected. Many listens ended prematurely due to boredom but after a several day break, I’d come back, wondering if I just wasn’t understanding what I was hearing. To a small extent, I was right. I saw the decentness of J and the Snakes once I looked past its outright jacking of the instrumental for Outkast’s Art of Storytelling Pt. 1. The last verse, about J meeting a women he had a one-night stand with, was especially good. At this point I wasn’t tired of the obsession with ruined relationships, so telling the story from both POVs at the same time brought me right into that moment, but I didn’t feel that connection anywhere else. The personal touch of that story is sorely missing from Trouble and Runaway, despite their very similar topics. Two other songs that eventually grew on me are Forbidden Fruit (same sample as an old Madlib instrumental off his Shades of Blue album, do we see a pattern yet?) and Chaining Day. Forbidden Fruit is the only fun song on the whole album, and even its most clever lines don’t hold up after many listens. Chaining Day is a critique of hip-hop materialism that I can somehow appreciate while still noticing the hypocrisy of such a song appearing on the same album where Cole constantly references the fact that he’s rich now.

I planned on keeping this short but while I’m failing to meet that goal, I might as well point out that I can’t stand Born Sinner’s main singles. Both have sung hooks and are clearly grabs at the female audience that is known to buy more albums than men. Power Trip’s best part is Miguel, in fact I wish this was his solo song. I don’t mind the topic of having a crush, but J. Cole clearly wasn’t trying with these verses. Meanwhile, Crooked Smile is a very sappy “I’m respectful of women” cash-in attempt that fails to sound good despite featuring TLC. Hopefully their comeback fares better.

Given my low expectations being met, I could and maybe should have just skipped Born Sinner. But I feel that I need to cover it since J Cole is on that short list of rappers who get named as counter-examples to the “rap sucks nowadays” argument. If this guy is going to be classified by others as one of the dopest new artists, then I want to be familiar with his work and decide if he deserves that categorization. As you can likely guess, my decision is “no.” Only when compared to his lackluster peers does J. Cole’s music deserve the accolades that he regularly gets. On his own, he’s ho-hum, easily overlooked, possibly artistically suffocating under major label expectations. Like it’s creator, Born Sinner isn’t bad as much as it is not-at-all-compelling.

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