12/01: J. Cole – Born Sinner

I played this for “Villuminati”. I stayed for the rest of the album.

With the success of 2014 Forest Hills Drive and 4 Your Eyez Only, Born Sinner is seen as a stumbling block to the artist J. Cole has grown into. I always found Cole World: The Sideline Story to be okay, as Cole just seemed thrilled to be making his debut album after several stops and starts. I love listening to “Note To Self” at the end of Forest Hills Drive because it signaled Cole embracing the long journey he took to be able to drop his third album by surprise with no features at all. I haven’t lived enough with 4 Your Eyez Only to give you an accurate review of it but I definitely respect it as a solid project.

But you just don’t hear about Born Sinner that often. “Crooked Smile” or “Power Trip” may pop up on a radio station every now and again but it’s not anyone’s go to Cole album.

Except me.

I love Forest Hills and I recognize it as Cole’s best album. But when I first got my Dodge Stratus, all I had was a FM/AM adapter for my iPod. When it broke a few months into 2013, my then 14 year old CD player could only play official CDs, so all my burned ones collected dust. I kept 4 albums in the car: Magna Carta… Holy Grail, I Am, CrazySexyCool, and Born Sinner. All of these CDs got crazy run until I was able to get a new adapter. Even then, I would still pop in a CD when I didn’t want to mess with my iPod.

Born Sinner was J. Cole as he was coming into his peak as an MC. From the brilliant opening track (I don’t know how I feel about the f—– line still) to the lethal combination of “Forbidden Fruit” and “Chaining Day”, there isn’t anything this album is lacking. Melodies, hooks, and lyrics are all solid throughout. Cole even managed to mostly get away from the corny bars that plagued his first album.

The production is insane as well. One of the things I noticed in my revisit was Cole’s ability to keep you listening to a song. I was convinced I should skip the title track until James Fauntleroy and Cole came together for the soulful chorus. I thought the same thing as “Trouble” started but I was all in within 90 seconds. It’s been said that you need to grab the listener immediately when it comes to music and Cole does a great job.

If you add in Truly Yours 3, the album tops out at 21 tracks. A little long considering the main album has no filler but 4 of the 5 tracks are pretty great. “New York Times” makes perfect use of a 50 Cent feature for 2013, “Miss America” absolutely doesn’t belong on the radio but it’s one of Cole’s harder songs in his catalog, “Is She Gon Pop” has Cole depicting groupie love at its finest, and “Niggaz Know” is one of the best lyrical exercises throughout the whole LP. “Sparks Will Fly” just seems like an attempt to get a Jhene Aiko feature when her buzz was high and it could have been left off. It’s the only true misstep in an album that’s over 4 years old now.

Despite Cole reworking 2 of hip-hop’s most familiar samples with “LAnd Of The Snakes” and “Forbidden Fruit”, he balances the fine line of paying homage all while making these tracks his own. Overcoming the sample is something a lot of artists have trouble with but Cole handles it masterfully.

Now, I know this isn’t Cole’s best work. Some of the bars are pretty corny to this day (there’s no lasagna lines though). Hell, I feel like Cole has even tried to distance himself from the album with the success of Forest Hills and 4 Your Eyez Only. But sometimes, when you’re really able to live with in album and know it so well from the lyrics right down to the last hi-hat, you can’t help but respect it as a work of art. Born Sinner is a work of art and I still love it. If you don’t agree, Cole said it on Sideline Story: nobody’s perfect.

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