2013 was a high for hip-hop. Almost every major artist released an album; the masters (Jay Z, Eminem, Kanye West, Lil Wayne), the leaders of the new school (Drake, J.Cole, Big Sean, Mac Miller, Wale, A$AP Rocky) and the rising stars (Action Bronson, Danny Brown, Chance The Rapper, A$AP Ferg, French Montana) all showed out, and many of them impressed. With the abundance of music came the quick reviews that were short in content and vague in description, not to mention their questionable ratings. A frustrated J. Cole, who’d just released Born Sinner, notably tweeted, “Your 1 listen reviews are f*cking up hip hop.” Granted, there was a lot of material to sift through, and reactions naturally happen quickly, but Cole had a valid point. Even with core fans standing in long lines and waiting until midnight to purchase an album online, a quick review and a single tweet can change the opinions of thousands within minutes. Specifically speaking on Born Sinner, it was nearly impossible to absorb each layer of the album’s content in one listen. It would have taken multiple listens just to grasp the core of the project. Having been released a little over a year ago, we now have had the time to get a better sense of the album’s full scope, including taking more notice to tracks that were overlooked.
Born Sinner takes an invasive look at the unknown side of recognition and fame in the music industry, taking special note of Cole’s access to materialistic pleasures. The album is dark, but not overly depressing or exhausting. It’s relatable, yet complex–a direct reflection of Cole’s soul, which lends reality to the different perspectives on pressure. Cole often uses themes of duality, hence the halo and horns found in his logos and cover art of the album. Born Sinner features duality play on topics such as money, power, relationships and fame. Album-opening “Villuminati” sets the tone of the album, with Cole stating, “It’s way darker this time.” Metaphorically, he’s fighting his way through a new class of hell as he swears to never sell out to mainstream again with singles like “Work Out” (the song that “let down” Queens’ finest).
Two of the album’s most overlooked cuts are the “Kerney Sermon” skit and “LAnd of The Snakes.” Both are strategically placed as they allude to the false words and images of the rap industry. “Kerney Sermon” places emphasis on a hustler’s mentality to defraud the masses, while “LAnd of The Snakes” finds Cole being warned of people with ill intentions, eventually reflecting on a time where he was in the role of the snake.
Of course “Power Trip,” featuring Miguel, was the album’s brightest star on the radio, but this is where Cole learns to play the game to win. The song’s double meaning of love for a girl and love hip-hop was sure to move swiftly over some heads, but its radio-friendly production and catchy chorus was a platinum win for Cole.
Perhaps the hardest cut and least talked about was “Mo Money.” Coming in at just over 1 minute, Cole spells out angles from which money is the “root of all evil,” illustrating the control it has on society. The greatest hidden gem, though, is “Runaway.” Cole finds himself asking reflective questions about being selfish or selfless in a long-term relationship while dealing with money and attention. The duality comes in with verse three, as he connects slavery in the past to everyone being enslaved in the current day.
Continuing that theme, Cole describes being enslaved by materialistic wealth, specifically a chain in “Chaining Day.” Borrowing from the Denzel Washington movie “Training Day,” he dives into the part of himself seeking constant approval and what’s unearthed is less than desirable: “This chain that I bought, you mix greed, pain and fame, this is heinous result.” While “Crooked Smile” featuring TLC took the album to a lighter and happier note, the disc finds its way back to a low point on the most talked about track, “Let Nas Down.” Here, Cole self-pityingly laments his aforementioned industry sin (“Work Out”).
The last and final track, (excluding the deluxe version,) is “Born Sinner”–in essence, it is the acknowledgment and acceptance of J. Cole as an artist. Born Sinner is an album for the day 1 fans, and for those willing to invest time and intellect into Cole. He held on to his artistic integrity and core beliefs while furthering his purpose for being in the rap game. Looking back, this album has settled fairly well. It displays his artistic growth on a lyrical and musical level. Some of the strongest songs might’ve been overlooked in reviews, but the fans always know. Just as he found the light of his own artistry amidst the industry’s dark, his project has found light from adoring and attentive fans in spite of the shadow cast by reactionary reviews. On Born Sinner, Cole found an opportunity to write his way out of tension and pressure in order to create a fantastic body of work.
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