One and a half years after his highly acclaimed debut album, J Cole tries to live up to the hype with his Sophomore release, Born Sinner. To help spark a buzz, about a month before the album’s release date, Cole dropped the Truly Yours 2 EP. The early release contained six tracks with features from Young Jeezy and 2 Chainz and sounded very promising. However, in the opening line Cole states, “this right here is not a preview of what the album’s going to bring you.” Cole wasn’t lying, as none of the tracks from the EP found their way onto Born Sinner. Instead, the album took on a new identity, focusing more of its energy on radio friendly songs, with a lot more attention given towards the quality of production. In addition, J Cole dropped a deluxe version of the album, incorporating another 5-track extended play named Truly Yours 3. The extra music would be a nice touch on the back end, but seemed somewhat out of place in relation to the vibe of Born Sinner.
Many music fans anticipated dramatic progress from J Cole the rapper. Ironically, Cole showed more signs of improvement in his production skills than in any other area. Chicago producer No ID may be a big reason for Cole’s development. The veteran beat maker has been mentoring J Cole recently and it shows on Born Sinner. The beats have more of a spark than before and contain numerous layers and well-timed special effects. Samples from popular Outkast and A Tribe Called Quest songs demonstrate how the influence of ’90s hip hop are embedded throughout J Cole’s music. The overall vibe of Born Sinner is more laid back and relaxed than your typical hip hop album. The soft tones and mellow sounds match well with J Cole’s style and tempo. Listeners will be pleased to hear Cole’s consistency and attention to detail throughout the album as well. Although the beats aren’t as elaborate as Kanye West’s might be, they fit the mold of what Cole was trying to accomplish. As far as mic skills are concerned, Cole delivers what we’ve grown to expect. His flows are smooth, the wordplay is sharp, and his persona remains just as relatable as it was before all the money and the fame. Overall, Cole’s fan base will be pleased with the progress he’s made on both sides of the mic booth.
One downside to Born Sinner was it’s obvious attempt towards producing radio friendly songs. At first I liked how J Cole started out by showing off his braggadocios flow on the intro track Villuminati. A few tracks later there was a turn of events and battle mode Cole disappeared showing no signs of return. Soon enough the tempo changed to a much slower pace as songs like Power Trip, Trouble, and Runaway brought forth melodramatic undertones, which seemed a bit overboard at times. The commercial vibe made me start to lose hope. Luckily, around the half-way mark, Rich Niggaz came along and restored my faith in Born Sinner. The simplicity of the harps alongside Cole’s heartfelt flow made me wonder where this side of Jermaine had been hiding. Still J Cole only gave us different pieces of his personality in short spurts throughout the album. Tracks like Mo Money and Ain’t That Some Shit allowed Cole to give us an edgier, more competitive sound. Unfortunately, those songs were only short interludes found far and few between. Rounding out the album, I was pleasantly surprised by Chaining Day and Let Nas Down, which contained deeper concepts and helped reveal the ability for Cole to convey a sense of humility to his listeners. I think Born Sinner might have benefited by having more songs like that compared to radio hopefuls such as Crooked Smile.
If you were expecting to hear a classic collaboration on Born Sinner, you might be disappointed. At first glance when I saw features from mainstream stars Miguel and Kendrick Lamar I was intrigued to hear how the rising stars would sound together. Unfortunately, Cole opted to only use his guest stars to sing the hook, leaving us without a memorable verse. Many fans, like myself, felt short-changed and could only wonder how Kendrick’s patented style might have come across on Forbidden Fruit. Similarly, on Truly Yours 3, the song New York Times would only utilize 50 Cent on the chorus. This inexplicable absence prevented some of Cole’s radio hits from being potential classics. Honestly, I expected more from the guest appearances on Born Sinner.
With J Cole putting out so much content at once, it’s difficult to sort through all the material. Releasing three different titles will more than likely confuse some people and force some great songs to go unnoticed and unappreciated. It might have made more sense if Cole dropped one full-length, 21 track LP and left the gimmicky ‘Deluxe Edition’ out of the mix. More than likely, the best version of Born Sinner will be the one fans create on their own by taking their favorite tracks from all three albums. No matter how you package it, there’s no doubt J Cole is showing signs of growth as an artist, not only on the mic, but also on the soundboard. With Roc Nation behind him and No ID as his mentor, Cole looks to solidify his position in the rap game for years to come. I think Born Sinner will help him gain more fans and retain the one’s he already has. I just hope next time he realizes, one solid album holds more weight than three mediocre ones.