The trouble with sophomore albums isn’t so much about timing – the old adage that artists have a lifetime to write their first record and just a year or two for the second – as it is the difficulty involved in re-branding an origin story, or conversely, establishing a new narrative arc on which to build. That’s where J. Cole stands with Born Sinner, a misguided attempt to make up for his occasionally promising but somewhat compromised debut album, Cole World: The Sideline Story.
With little left to squeeze out of his well-documented come-up story – he’s been culling from it for several full-length projects now – Born Sinner makes the mistake of equating seriousness with progression (“It’s way darker this time,” he declares on opener “Villuminati”). The result is a rather dreary and often plodding effort from an artist who has always been more comfortable plying warm, steady soul. Somewhat shockingly, and in sharp contrast to his earlier work, the best stuff here is the radio records. “Power Trip,” in particular, is an absolute triumph, a hook and melody-anchored song layered with chopped up flute and chugging, distorted percussion. It’s both instantly accessible and indelibly his own.
Even the cheesy-as-hell empowerment record “Crooked Smile” has a certain endearing charm to it, doubly so when stacked up against some of the downright bitter and casually misogynistic writing that permeates the rest of Born Sinner. When, on “Trouble,” Cole raps: “Could write a book called ‘The Things Hoes Say’,” it sounds less like a boast and more like a mission statement (and to think he could save himself a lot of stress by just scaling back a little on the earnest introspection and answering a few calls from his one night stands). It doesn’t help that he pairs these reflections with depressingly moody arrangements heavy on music box pianos and overblown choirs.
Born Sinner’s central tension – Cole’s struggle to reconcile his “childhood fantasy of a wife and home” with a seemingly incompatible but nonetheless desirable rap star lifestyle – is one worth parsing, and Cole is more than capable of musing about the inner workings of relationships. But he’s just scratching the surface here, only occasionally infusing his tales with the kind of genuine humanity that makes them stick. “Runaway” – one of the most polished songs Cole has put to record – stands out as the rare occasion in which the object of his affection is given a voice that isn’t entirely contemptible.
As an artist J. Cole can be calculated to a fault. When he opens up on “Let Nas Down” – a worthy chronicle of bitter disappointment and pained defiance – it makes for a great behind the curtains moment. But he just can’t help but to internalize the criticism at the heart of that song (a bit of old head moralizing about “selling out”). It’s no wonder that Born Sinner ends up coming off as labored as the crossover hits he seems so set on making up for.
Label: Dreamville, Roc Nation, Columbia, Sony Music | Producers: J. Cole, Christian Rich, DJ Dummy, Elite, Irvin Washington, Jake One, Ken Lewis, Nate Jones, Ron Gilmore, Syience