Review: J. Cole’s ‘Born Sinner’

North Carolina’s emcee J. Cole’s breakout mixtapes alongside his “Cole World: The Sideline Story” merited him to be a competitor in the rap game, but as with every project that he’s involved in, a certain lack of star power hinders his chances at achieving main event glory.

Whether or not the lack of “umph” lies in the pressure of being under Jay-Z’s Roc Nation record label or the negative stigma of being famous is up for debate. What Cole does infer in “Born Sinner” is just that: a constant back and forth between knowing what to do with the spoils of fame and being able to balance them for the sake of taking care of what really matters.

Cole comes out swinging haymakers with “Villuminati.” The song sets the tone off on the right foot, with some edgy and daring lyricism regarding homosexuality and different spectrum of politics — one being his stance in hip-hop and the other regarding President Barack Obama and Japan. The double-time flow is beautifully combined with some solid production by Cole himself and beings to create the distinction between the good and evil parts of Cole’s prominence.

“Land of the Snakes” and ”Chaining Day” are superb tracks reinforcing this theme, the first of which takes some quick jabs at Cole’s flashback of having sexual relations before church and having deserted a past lover because of the fame, only to find out that the woman doesn’t care much for him even when he’s back in town.

“Chaining Day” talks on Cole’s spending habits geared toward flashy jewelry instead of buying a house for his closest family members.

With an exquisitely executed hook from Kendrick Lamar, “Forbidden Fruit” is a swift uppercut of simple, yet smooth lyricism displayed from Cole as he raps about losing his innocence and how a lot of material things have a way of coming and going.

Arguably the best on “Born Sinner,” “Let Nas Down” describes Cole’s confliction after hearing how the rap legend had negatively responded to “Work Out,” a radio friendly song featured on his previous debut album. Alongside the sultry horns that guide the background instrumental, this song is one of the few showcases of heartfelt emotion. The fact that Nas simply disliked one of his radio hits simply crushed him.

Compared to some of his previous projects, Cole has structured himself around a theme that he can stick to, and it helps that he has a backing of some superior, grade-A production, so there’s some points for that. However, throughout much of the album, he does have the tendency to not put any power behind his words, just as a boxer would reinforce his power in his punches.

This is not necessarily to say that he’s monotone, rather his witty comeback lines are simply without any emphasis or power. Evidence of these lacking attributes can be seen in tracks like “Trouble” and “Sparks Will Fly.” There’s great presentation and feel in both, but not much else. It’s also important to note that these tracks are simply throwaways from his “Truly Yours 3” EP.

This is the main reason behind Cole’s midcard standing. While his lyricism and beat choices on “Born Sinner” nothing about any of these tracks come off as exhilarating, which brings down the essence of the entire album.

Listeners who have been through this path before with Cole will find the same emotional detachment in this new 21-track experience in “Born Sinner.” While many may come for his excellent use of wordplay and style, they can’t deny that there’s a huge deficiency of delivery and flair.

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