Born Sinner is the product of a rapper who is so conflicted in terms of what his music should be that instead of trying to find his own unique niche, J.Cole tries to do too many different things that have already been done before that the saying “Jack of all trades but master of none” seems a fitting one to describe him.
Even when glimpses of the mixtape J.Cole shines through on the album one can’t help but yawn and think “I’ve heard all of this before”. Sonically the album is rich and diverse, so it seems like the only thing that has grown and developed is J.Cole’s production ability, otherwise lyrically he’s as good as he’s always been.
With the opening track “Villuminati” sampling Notorious B.I.G’s “Juicy”, the choir-heavy track and haunting strings sets the tone acoustically for the album. On “Land of the Snakes” he samples Outkast’s “The Art of Storytelling(Part 1)” with its eerie synths, which tapers out into a sparse percussion. A standout track production-wise is “Forbidden Fruits” which samples A Tribe Called Quest’s “Eclectic Relaxation” with an eccentric bassline and sparse yet heartwarming keys; the song makes for instant replay.
Elegant, sophisticated beats throughout the album that were carefully orchestrated by piano, strings and harp instruments highlight J.Cole’s growth as a producer yet they remind a listener of pre-“808 and Heartbreaks” Kanye. If his resolve on solely producing his own work isn’t grating enough, this annoyance is compounded by the fact that he really doesn’t like to collaborate. Besides ghostly whispers of Kendrick Lamar on “Forbidden Fruit” there is no one else that adds to Born Sinner. Where is ASAP Rocky? Wale? B.I.G Krit? J.Cole’s bestie Drake? Heck, even the track “Chris Tucker” featuring 2 Chainz that didn’t make the album would have lightened the mood of this sombre almost depressing offering that has become typical of Jermaine.
Wouldn’t it be nice to play a banger that belonged to this Roc Nation signee before a good time? Whether it’s caused by insecurity or stubbornness, his one-man-show syndrome and not being able to play with other kids is starting to make his music sound stale which would be unfortunate because his music is really great. A little diversity in production and in the form of collaborations would have made Born Sinner so much more enjoyable.
Lyrically J.Cole is at his best when he raps about social commentary (“Chaining Day”) and relationships and women (“Trouble”, “Runaway” , “She Knows”). A clever, witty rapper and a true storyteller, his penchant for rich narratives is unrivaled however when he becomes self and class-conscious he adopts these self-pitying, self-deprecating and apologetic tones. They were cute and charming at first but now they’re just tired. “Sometimes I brag I like Hov but I keep it real like Pac” is actually code for “Sometimes I brag like Hov but I keep apologising like an insecure person”. He drops these braggadocio type one-liners and yet he keeps on apologising for his success, his money and his fame (cues “Rich Niggaz”).
He’s a young multimillionaire now – he should own it instead of being ashamed of it. He compares himself to the greats and says he’s as good as his idols yet he makes a sniveling song to one of them as if begging for his approval (cues “I Let Nas Down”). If Jermaine wants the throne he needs to stop bowing down to the Kings thinking that they will give it to him just because he’s begging for it at their feet. If he wants to be great he needs to start acting great. This emo depro whiney defeatist attitude is played out.
J.Cole has just become too formulaic and if his next offering isn’t innovative and different to what he’s been putting out he might just go down in hip-hop history as the first but most average rapper signed to Roc Nation Records. This would be a pity because he really does have the potential to be great. He needs to lighten up more in terms of lyrics and increase the tempo production-wise and also collaborate more if he wants to stay relevant in this hip-hop game. But more importantly he needs to find who he is then expand and grow with it. You can’t want street cred yet reject crime at the same time. You can’t boast about being rich and the best and yet be the underdog who doesn’t belong and hates being rich at the same time. When you wear too many hats your head starts becoming a mess.
His music needs to be a more dynamic with some vra-vra-vroom that captivates instead of being bland and average with no tonal variety. J.Cole should take his boss’s words “It’s all about progression” a bit more seriously and stop being conventional and having that “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” mentality. If he wants to join the pantheon of the rap gods a change is necessary. Born Sinner is a step towards improvement from his debut but not a leap, and that is where unfortunately how this project falls flat.
Written By: Nomusa Mthethwa (@NomusaMT)