No artist is without his or her own flaws. Those prevalent concerns an artist carries with the possibility to push beyond, either by embracing or correcting them as a whole. The ability to overcome such faults often results in the purest form of growth, which is something only the greatest of entertainers and artists can accomplish. With that said, J. Cole has had an uphill battle since getting a glimpse of the spotlight.
Last time we met Jermaine Cole in retail stores, he put together his debut album against the hardest of difficulties. It wasn’t without trial and error, dealing with the problems that come with the industry, creating “hits”, the whispers of being dropped from the label and more. Then, after overcoming what stood against him, Cole found himself in a state of depression, battling negative thoughts with his writing. Now facing the infamous curse of the sophomore project, carrying the pressure and the pessimism, did J. Cole manage to step forward and overcome all that consumed him; not only with his new demons, but the burden of creating something better than his previous effort?
“Allow me to reintroduce myself, my name is Cole…”
The Introduction to Jermaine’s sophomore effort titled “Villuminati” starts of with a aggressive drum pattern, combining with a series of sounds (including a B.I.G sample) to create something enjoyably haunting. Cole bursts onto the instrumental, spilling his emotions out in regards to his enemies, subject matter, previous romantic interests and his affiliation with the illuminati. It’s brilliantly executed as the first track and holds the rest of the creation at a standard above his previous album.
“Now who more thorough than me, I paint a picture with my heart for the world to see…”
Following a Kerney Thomas related skit, we arrive at “Land of the Snakes” which is much less heavy than the track before it. Entering on a slightly somber note, the drums and the switch towards the end make light of the track itself as Cole reflects on some of his less depressing moments. Vintage J. Cole shines through here, with college memories, honest reflections and candid storytelling.
“I’m in your city and I’m wondering if you home now, went and found a man but I’m hoping you alone now…”
Born Sinner’s lead single “Power Trip” is a glorious mixture between the soul that would pour out of a R&B record and the gritty perspective that comes with a Hip Hop artist. With a simple and short feature from Miguel during the chorus, Cole effortlessly expresses his emotions whilst revealing his improved ability to deliver his words. The growth between this and his previous work is clearly shown and it’s easily one of the standout tracks on the project.
“I take ya to the Promised Land, you don’t want problems, I promise, man.”
Trailing after another minute long skit involving money and Cole’s thoughts on the pursuit of it is the dangerous “Trouble”, in which we see one of Cole’s biggest risks yet. A larger step away from his typical work so far, the subject matter isn’t astonishing but the instrumental combined with his delivery feels fresh which in turn, brings more life to the project as it proceeds. The risk pays off, to say the very least.
“She popped a molly, let the motha f*ckin games begin…”
“Runaway” prowls in next, with a calm tone to match Cole’s precarious attempt at singing in the hook. Here the instrumental shines above the lyricism on display, with the chorus serving to be catchy enough to slide although overall it feels flat compared to the rest of the project thus far.
“Damned if I do… Damned if I don’t…”
A testament to how much Jermaine has improved since his debut project is the lovably imperfect “She Knows.” It feels somewhat odd and as murky as the instrumental may be with dramatic keys and a intense feel, It works. The track feels unsure of what it wants to be but it delivers, continuing to give the project life and even possibly standing to be memorable outside of the project.
“You got what I want, I got what you need…”
The tale of not having it all but wanting more bleeds through “Rich Niggaz” which essentially serves as something for the masses to relate to. From the issues that come with money, to issues that lurk without them, Cole utilizes his ability to relate throughout this track. The guitar towards the end of the record pushes this track to a level that just manages to match the worst of this project so far, which isn’t bad by any means, but doesn’t hold up against the best.
“What you eat don’t make me shit, and who you fuck don’t make me cum, put a price on my head, won’t make me run…”
After a churchlike skit, the illustrious Kendrick Lamar lends his essence to the expertly executed “Forbidden Fruit” complete with A Tribe Called Quest sample. Cole’s take on the mature instrumental is borderline childish, but remains enjoyable as it proceeds. As it falls a bit short in terms of scale with the rest of the tracks, the legendary sample is what’ll save this track from being undistinguished in the future.
“I swear this is the last time….”
“Chaining Day” feels borderline soulful, with the switch up half way through it preventing the somewhat uninteresting subject matter from gripping the track and pulling it down to a level where it becomes unworthy of the project.
“How you like this Crooked Smile?”
The “Ain’t That Some Shit” Interlude grabs ears immediately after the serene ending to the track before it, enlivening the project once again before the expressive “Crooked Smile” oddly makes its way forward. With a TLC charged hook, J. Cole spends his time on this reminding the listener (through his effortlessly utilized ability to share and relate) that being “you” is beautiful and honorable things of that nature. A righteous track is the norm in Cole’s discography at this point, but the addition of TLC makes this track a step above the others.
“Long live the idols, may they never be your rivals…”
One of the standout tracks throughout the project specifically for subject matter, “Let Nas Down” blows most tracks on the project out of the water. J. Cole pours out his frustrations and anger all over the sax and drums that serve as a canvas, captivating the listener with his strife in the process. Undoubtedly it serves to be superior just for it’s earnestness.
“Spinning in circles, live my life without rehearsal…”
To conclude the project, Cole brings James Fauntleroy of Cocaine 80’s fame to croon on the hook as Cole exposes more of himself, his thoughts and his goals that still serve to be relevant in his career thus far. The instrumental serves it’s purpose of allowing Cole and his guest to coast, ultimately creating satisfying results from the two.
We watched the underdog from Dreamville deal with some of the worst type of hurdles due to the industry. It has been undoubtedly gloomy for the susceptible born sinner. These days the snags have evolved with the artist we still watch and thankfully Cole hasn’t diverged too far from his old formula while improving his skillset, not just as a lyricist, but also as a producer. I’ve purposely refrained from mentioning the producing credits because Cole crafted nearly the entire project on his own. Handling that while making sure the project didn’t end up feeling stale is quite an accomplishment and a large improvement from his previous album.
As he struggled with all sorts of problems moving to and from The Sideline Story, J. Cole has crafted a project that not only commendably defeats the sophomore curse, but also remains genuine. Unfortunately the project isn’t without its problems. Despite the good going for it, Cole’s sophomore project does feel a bit lengthy, with some tracks feeling like they could’ve been left off. In addition, the subject matter (though contradictory yet relatable) also feels juvenile in some moments; an issue he carried with his work since his very first mixtape. Nonetheless, the maturity that exists within his honesty outweighs the babyish instants and still feels like not just a step in the right direction, but a sprint. Dark, vicious and angry, Born Sinner solidifies what the Dreamvillains already knew; J. Cole isn’t going anywhere.
Timeless Tracks: “Villuminati”, “Power Trip”, “She Knows”, “Let Nas Down”
Pros: Far from repetitive in sound, growth is apparent
Cons: A couple of tracks could’ve been left off