Since I unabashedly said that my entire discography was better than Cole World, it behooves me to look at his second album, 2013's Born Sinner. Why? Well, you can't just say that your entire lo-fi rap collection is better than someone's first mainstream album and not look at their discography, right? Plus, you know, I find it both fun and cathartic to analyze J. Cole's music as a music fan who neither blindly capes for Cole nor blindly hates the man. So, without any further stalling, let's revisit Born Sinner.
On a whim, in mid-2009, I copped all of Cole's projects available. So, the first time I heard J. Cole, he referred to himself as the man who has "a set of horns and a halo," reflecting the duality of humanity. I became a fan. I knew his shortcomings, but I felt some of his strengths could--and would--eventually shine through en masse. Cole, evolving from the hoop dreams-infused series of projects prior to Sinner, plays up that duality on this project. Additionally, when the album was released, it was the more-subdued yin to Yeezus's lo-fi, over-the-top yang. A project that evolved with its artist, Born Sinner was slated to be the album which put Cole on the lofty pedestal he's been playing around with since The Come-Up. But, does it?
The intro, "Villuminati" is probably more known these days for its use of "the (other) f-word" than anything. Well, at least he's not boring anymore, I guess. On a serious note, I get what Cole was trying to do with his use of the word. However, like his "artistic/autistic, retarded" line from the Jodeci Freestyle (and, funnily enough, his "next three bars for the retards" line in this very song), Cole's intentions didn't match his intellect on this one. On this project, we were supposed to get a "way darker," more mature Cole. If you take this intro as a testament of that maturation, it seems like Cole's going back to the same places he went in Cole World (cheesy jokes, overly-intricate "mansplanations" that don't really mean shit, etc.)
Until, that is, you get to the third verse. It's not the most lyrically in-depth verse, but we get a view into Cole's head. He's a dude who wants the fame, but wants his "soul" back as well. He wants to make the radio tracks but also make the anti-radio tracks that still get burn. Ultimately, it sets up, without being overly dramatic, the theme of the album: a young man in the 2010s who wants to be all-encompassing but wants to do so without being completely compromising. Sure, we get the cringeworthy punchlines, mansplaning and whatnot, but there's more of a balance between that stuff and the lyrically introspective artist fans love Cole to be.
Cole's ability to flesh out a concept has improved since CW, and that's best displayed in the placement of "Villuminati," the "Kerney Sermon" skit, and the next track, "LAnd of the Snakes." It's a bit hamfisted, in that the song after we spell out the dualities and falsehoods of both some sects of organized religion and the music business, we get a song about (what else?) sex, how people seem to "come out the womb with [their] dick hard," and possibly an allusion to the "snakes" in L.A. It has some pretty "eh" lines, but nothing as blatantly "ugh" as "Stevie with his glasses off/cause I still don't see hope." Seems like we're seeing some progress as Cole as an artist.
After this pseudo-breakthrough, we get "Power Trip," the half-stripper anthem, half-"love letter to my love and my music" song. I remember when this joint dropped, I went to the strip club with some friends and there was this dancer who danced to this track, followed by "Wicked Games" and "Panty Wetter."
The "Mo Money" interlude plays into this theme in some ways. It also acts as a shift in the mood back from Fifty Shades of Cole to the "people robbing people for hope money while the world's both crookedly evil and crookedly beautiful" theme of the album. "Trouble" compounds this idea while pushing past some of the groan-inducing corniness we saw on Cole World. Do we see lines like "I'm Koppa, I'm not the Mario (marry-yo) type" when talking about Cole's desires? Yeah. It wouldn't be Cole without a punchline that slaps you in the face with its dick of obviousness. But, the good outweighs the bad on this one, thus far.
I think that Cole's problem in these early projects was that, while you've gotta respect him for talking what he knows, his topics were stilted. It's usually some combination of "I hate the limelight and what it can do to me," "humans have evil tendencies," discussions on religion, and "I'm a legend in the making." But, even for these limitations, he manages to turn "Runaway" into a poignant discussion on sin (mainly adultery) and racial tension, discussing the similarities and the differences that create racial issues.
And then we're taken right back to the sex and monogamy issues in "She Knows." It's a spooky-sounding track because of its choral usage. And we, at least, get a different take on the matter (it's less about "I'm cheating on my girl" and more about "I'm not cheating on her for you"). But, for an album that's supposed to be the antithesis of Cole World, this track feels pretty radio-friendly. This sets up "Rich Niggaz," the thematic counterpoint to the radio-ready "She Knows." Just listen to the track.
"Where's Jermaine?"/"Forbidden Truth" comes back to the spiritual side of things. While I was, admittedly, a bit blown that Kendrick Lamar didn't get an actual verse on this track, it makes sense. No, not just in the "no guest appearances, what's the result? Crowned top lyricist" sort of way. Kendrick's chorus is warping and sets the back-and-forth mood on this track. Yes, it also delves into another sex-related discussion, but at least we get a "modern day Adam" for our troubles.
"Chaining Day" feels like it could've and should've featured Stalley's verse from "10 Jesus Pieces." That's really all I can say about this track. It's a simplistic set-up and it's executed well. I just feel like Stalley or K.R.I.T. or someone could've sent this one over the edge of glory. But, hey. Cole wanted to do it mostly on his own, so who am I to judge?
"Ain't That Some Shit" is...it's part "old Cole" (with the Syience beat, for starters) and also shows that transition from dark Cole to enlightened Cole. We get some Cole tropes, but it sets up "Crooked Smile" perfectly. "Crooked Smile" is "Nobody's Perfect" part two (down to the 90s features). However, this track works a bit better than "Nobody's Perfect," even with more mansplaining hilarity, mainly because of its third verse. Veering off the path of "let's just celebrate each other's imperfections" straight into "this game is fucking biased but still, I'm going to try and make my mark" territory, "Crooked Smile" is unashamed in what it represents.
As I've discussed "Let Nas Down" in a previous piece, I'm going to skip over that and go straight into the album's finale (the rest of the tracks shown are bonus tracks which form the Truly Yours 3 EP), the title track "Born Sinner." This song's beat is one which always gets me. Honestly, I've a soft spot for gospel-esque tracks and gospel as a whole (yes, even though I'm not exactly the "model" Christian). It's fitting that this track ends off BS, as it's the summation of the album's concept. Cole's growing as a man and an artist. It's the shit that gets you excited for 2014 FHD.
So, was Born Sinner really that bad?
Is it a perfect album? No. Does it trump Cole World in just about every way imaginable? Yes. So, was it really that bad? Nah. It was a lot better than June 18th, 2013's other release. Just off the strength of that alone, it's good. It's the album Cole should've dropped as his debut. Is it a classic? No. In fact, just like Cole World, simplistic set-ups, analogies, and lyrics you could see Cole saying "oh, my nigga, this is genius" to even if someone else might disagree, keep it from that tier. But, it's a decent album and a follow-up which ups the positives about Cole's 2011 release. No, I'm not reviewing 2014 FHD. Go check it out.