Album Review: J Cole goes looking for redemption on ‘Born Sinner’

While much, if not all, of the focus on June 18 album releases has been on Kanye West”s “Yeezus,”  fellow rapper J Cole is nipping at his heels like a eager, overly-confident puppy.  Cole deliberately moved the release of his sophomore set,  “Born Sinner,” up a week to compete directly with “Yeezus.”

“Yeezus” will win the sales battle, but Cole may win the war.  “Born Sinner,” produced largely by Cole with some help from No I.D., Elite and others, solidifies Cole”s impressive wordplay and rap skills. While he may not have as much of import to say as he thinks he does, Cole certainly has a way with a story: here they often tie in with with biblical references, whether its original sin, the promised land, or crucifixion (though, thankfully, he doesn”t have quite the level of messianic complex as West).

His lyrics, as full of braggadocio as they can be,  are also full of questions for which there are often no answers. “Born Sinners”” tunes deal with conflict after conflict, whether it”s the war between genders (all too often, Cole resorts to denigrating women), race relations, his sudden rise in money and the accompanying power, or just the endless noise in his own head.

“Cole World: The Sideline Story,” Cole”s 2011 debut studio album (following a series of mixtapes) entered the Billboard 200 at No. 1. As the Jay-Z protege displayed, he had a keen sense of rhyming and delivery, if a bit deadpan, sort of like Drake.

Cole anchors “Born Sinner,” but there are plenty of guests that nicely counterpoint his flat vocals, such as Miguel on “Power Trip.” (Is there any song that Miguel doesn”t make better?)

On “Power Trip,” the woman keeps him up all night. Females continue to vex him throughout the album. On “Forbidden Fruit,” featuring Kendrick Lamar, Cole raps about “apple juice falling from her lips,” in an extrapolation of Eve tempting Adam with an apple in the Garden of Eden. (In the song, he also addresses deciding to “jump out the same day at Kanye, and shouts out to Maroon 5″s Adam Levine, even if he does mispronounce his last name).

The conflicted relationship with women continues: On “Crooked Smile,” which features TLC, he is all about empowering women, telling them to be happy with their natural beauty, before expanding “Crooked Smile” into a treatise about race. “If my skin pale, would I sell like Eminem or Adele,” he asks over a loping, easy-going melody.

That”s not the only place he takes on the white/black divide. “Chaining Day” has tough lyrics about the lessons he”s learned so far over a chant of “I need you to love me, love me, love,” while early in the song he questions the different reactions between blacks and whites and what constitutes enslavement.

On “Mo Money Trouble,” he raps over an ethereal, floating melody,  “Money control ni**as, white men control money,” before the song gives way to a heavier beat base. He realizes that the money and supposed wealth he has accrued is illusory compared to the true magnates, almost all of whom are white.

When he”s not trying to figure out if women are saints or whores or tackling race relations, he alternately praising and slapping down his elders. In addition to taking on West, he sings about his heartache of realizing he let down one of his heroes, Nas, on “Let Nas Down.” “Long Live the idols, may they never be your rivals/Pac was like Jesus,” he sings in the beginning of the song over a jazzy saxophone bed. The song is a near literal telling of how much he admired Nas, and how devastated he is when he found out that Nas was let down by his music (particularly, a song called “Work Out”). He compares himself to Jesus, taking the fall. “For the greater good, I walk among the evil…I went to Hell and resurrected.”

Cole, like West, masterminds his own records from constructing most of the beats to writing the songs and there”s genuine talent there. There are germs of innovation that show he has plenty of room to grow as his inchoate talent continues to develop.

On “Born Sinner,” he”s smartly created an album that examines what happens when your dreams come true both money and fame wise and you”ve gotten yourself a little dirty in the process. Is redemption possible or even desirable or do you wait until you fall further.  Stay tuned.