Three years after Sideline Story, J. Cole offers us his second album Born Sinner opening it up by saying “It’s way darker this time” and it’s true, he has taken a grittier approach. His confidence is flaunted in your ears as with the first track “Villuminati”. He no longer needs to prove himself; this album is about sustaining himself as a legend.
It’s the same mix of commercial and intimate tracks peppered with completely honest lyrics that worked so well on the first album. Again he deals with hard-hitting topics, homophobia, slavery, money, but never forgetting the biggest thing guys like to talk about: women. Like the last album, there are big names featuring with him on Born Sinner – TLC, Miguel, Kendrick Lamar and James Fauntleroy. He doesn’t stray too far from the formula that already worked but there is more ambition and a desire to show his development.
Yet again, Cole produces the whole album except two tracks which were the greatly talked about “Let Nas Down” and a personal highlight of mine “Crooked Smile” – it is an impressive feat more so than on Sideline Story. There have been some controversies surrounding this album so far – the fact that it was leaked early, the same day release date as Kanye West and the “flagrant” use of the word “faggot” on the album’s opening track. But it’s certainly got everyone talking.
The album’s lead single “Power Trip”, featuring the sexy vocals from Miguel, is a tune that has already been doing commercially well and it will be the mainstream song that this album will be known for. It was undoubtedly my favourite tune, the ‘In the Morning’ track of the album if you like. But I felt it came too soon, too early, to give the rest of the album enough space to ruminate in your ears.
“Trouble” features big beats, commanding string arrangements and choirs offering celestial sounding backing vocals, it’s hard to go wrong with that combination and it’s one that gets me every time like Justin Timberlake’s “Losing My Way”. This song is dark with haunting vocals which echo through with J. Cole taking his time with his lyrics and delivering them powerfully. He even holds a note which could have been angrier; this is one of the songs I’d like to watch him perform live. He also lets the song run its course sonically; giving you a chance to cool down after your listen.
“She Knows” jumps straight in at you, featuring vocals from Amber Coffman – this track has a powerful presence, faster in pace following on from its preceding track, “Runaway” which was quite laid back. Lyrically, it follows the same theme of struggling with monogamy. Coffman offers ethereal vocals which are brilliantly used to build and break the song. Towards the end, Cole strips it back to just keys and then blasts everything back, leaving Coffman to finish. It was one of the most satisfying to listen to on Born Sinner.
Straight after this on the album is “Rich N****Z”, it is a simple flowery harp melody over rain and storms, assisted by sparse drum patterns and minimalist vocal melodies. This is where Cole shines, rapping from anecdotes, debating what you’re willing to sell to be in the business. It’s slowed right down and has a guitar riff that you wouldn’t expect to find. This is definitely one of the more intimate moments of Born Sinner.
Cole has always been a storyteller in his lyrics, but that is never enough – it soon expands into other issues that define his life, race and slavery, money and the music business. A lot of these are relatable. They are a real insight into an industry driven by the size of your diamonds which he beautifully mocks on “Chaining Day”. “Let Nas Down” is a perfect example and I’m so glad that Cole wrote this, it is a moment in which we can all relate to – the crushing desire to impress our idols and what happens when that fails. Cole is such an honest rapper that writing a song about a song on his second album doesn’t feel ridiculously brash or unnecessary.
Sure J. Cole will have a few major commercial successes and the album will do tremendously well, but this is music to listen, absorb and reflect on. This is a man talking about what he wants right now, his convictions and his dilemmas – switching from bravado to vulnerability; emotions that we all go through on a daily basis.
It all ends with the Gospel inspired album title-track “Born Sinner” which appropriately sounds like the end credits to a movie, there is an uplifting hopeful quality to it. It is completely different to everything else on this album and stands apart clearly defining the end. It includes smooth vocals from James Fauntleroy, grand piano arrangements and a choir solo section packed with full blown clapping to bring it all to an end. J. Cole’s sophomore album may have begun dark but it ends on something light and nostalgic.
J. Cole’s Born Sinner is out on June 18, purchase it here.