Cole World: The Sideline Story introduced the [commercial] world to an artist who had frustratingly watched his career remain stagnant from the periphery of a major label. It was not an awful debut, but compared to his previous projects, especially Friday Night Lights, Sideline Story was characterized by some very frustrating internal tensions. While J was supposed to be recounting how he made it into the game from the sidelines, he too frequently looked back at the bench, nearly convincing the listener that that was where he actually belonged. In fact, at the album’s lowest points, he would rap as if he actually was on that bench (See: “Can’t Get Enough”). Born Sinner bring us a J. Cole who has exorcised that specific self-doubt and is now playing the game, skills on full display.
This new found confidence should propel Cole to dizzying heights, but he rarely soars, even when his home-brewed instrumentals give him quite the lift. For instance, on “Trouble,” he dwells on his problems with the ladies while a choir and anxious synths triumphantly blare in the background. It’s a powerful instrumental, but Cole seems scared to match its demands; he languidly alludes to “Set it Off” on the chorus and he raps with clear hesitation in the verses. Why is he holding back? The answer is unclear, but it almost seems as if he doesn’t believe he can do better.
On “Let Nas Down,” one of the most self-deprecating rap songs of the past decade, Cole laments over Nas’ negative reaction to his song “Workout.” Rapping, “Long live the idols, may they never be your rivals,” he works himself up over having disappointed Nas. It’s a strange song, not only because Cole seems genuinely distraught, but because he alludes to Kanye‘s relationship with Jay-Z in the chorus. It’s well-known that Kanye earnestly tried to impress Jay-Z for years, but Kanye used Jay-Z’s indifference as fuel; for Cole, Nas‘ reaction is a solid defeat. Of course, Kanye has a bigger ego than J. Cole, but at one point Cole endorses the adage, “Play the game to change the game.” If that’s the case, letting Nas down is something he should have always been ready for: since it comes with playing the game it should result in overtime, not forfeit.
Cole‘s battle with confidence isn’t always a setback. On “Rich Niggaz” and “Mo Money,” he uses his self-doubts to contextualize his wealth relative to “old money.” This contrast isn’t new for rap or even rich blacks (Chris Rock has a funny bit on the racial dynamics of his neighborhood), but Cole occupies new ground when he is even willing to contextualize the dizzying wealth of Jay-Z, his label overlord. Cole is a millionaire and Jay-Z is a multi-millionaire, but there are people with even more money than Jay-Z! It’s an obvious point, but Jay-Z is the rap elite, so Cole‘s attention to the elite above the rap elite is refreshing. In the words of Saul Williams, “It’s bigger than rap.”
Interestingly, Cole is at his best when he reaches out beyond rap. On “She Knows,” which features Amber Coffman of Dirty Projectors, Cole transforms her soft voice into an ectoplasmic yet soulful whimper. Similar wonders are worked on “Forbidden Fruit,” which features Kendrick Lamar. On paper, this collaboration looks like either a rap blogger’s wet dream or a label’s obvious attempt to make a radio song, but the prodigious pair elects to swim in uncharted waters. Drinking from the same “Mystic Brew” that fueled A Tribe Called Quest‘s “Electric Relaxation,” they produced a whisper of a track that features Kendrick “lyrically humming.” It’s a brave choice that is only bested by “Power Trip,” an airy track that reunites Cole and Miguel for another reflection on love and its whims.
In the end, Born Sinner is an album that beats the sophomore slump, but it still showcases a J. Cole who is haunted by his own doubts, albeit new ones. Without a doubt, self-doubt can be a useful muse: Joe Budden‘s Mood Muzik series is all about transforming his self-doubt into music that expresses his demons in ways that his actions can’t. J. Cole’s wrestles with his doubts just aren’t quite as productive, at least not lyrically. His production work is top tier, but his lyrics and even the earnestness with which he delivers them, frequently fall short, almost as if he’s giving into his doubts. Given his progression since Sideline Story, for his next go-round, he should be able to either overcome or undermine his doubts. In other words, a three-peat is doubtful.
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