j-cole-sad-face-e1313595617566Slava P slept easier after writing this.

What’s the biggest problem with J.Cole? It depends on who you ask. For some, it’s the fact that he’s constantly compared to legends on a shaky precedent: he raps and produces, so he must be the new Kanye or he rhymes outside a first person perspective and tells stories, so he must be the new Nas. For others, the problem lies in the fact that he’s boring. Not technically boring, like say a Gucci Mane would be when he gets deep in the pocket of a song, but a boring overall character in the rap game with no story to tell.

With Born Sinner, Jermaine sets out with a chip on his shoulder to disprove all of these criticisms. Unfortunately, all that happens is that they are reaffirmed for the masses. His production skills have improved, but they are nowhere near complex enough to stand next to Kanye, nor are his lyrics funny or self effacing. Gone are the narrative tales that drew any comparison to Nasir, replaced instead by lyrics detailing the struggles of monogamy, the pressures of living up to racial stereotypes and the struggle of competing with his musical peers. There’s also nothing that Jermaine does to break the stigma that he’s a boring rapper. He’s rapping solely about his own life, but that life story has both been told ad nauseam on previous projects and wasn’t that fascinating to begin with. He grew up in North Carolina and moved to New York to pursue school and rap before meeting Jay-Z. That’s his life, and you’d be correct in thinking there’s not too much inspiration that you can draw from it after rapping for three years. It feels like he was so short on inspiration that he only moved his release date to coincide with Kanye’s so that he had another thing to rap about.

Born Sinner continues this familiar tale in most of the songs with a few variances, namely on “Let Nas Down” where he waxes poetic about the struggle of finding a radio hit only to have it lambasted by his childhood idol. It’s essentially a more calculated and less emotional version of Kanye’s “Big Brother,” but where Kanye put Jay-Z on a pedestal, Jermaine takes subtle shots at Nas for not understanding the bigger picture. If I were to try to pinpoint Cole’s biggest problem, I would say that it lies in him being a victim of his influences. On the very first song, he notes that he’s studied Tupac while rhyming over a Biggie sample and noting that he “brags like HOV”. It’s this over-kill of “paying respect” that holds him back. He tries so hard to meet or exceed his predecessors that he forgets to be the best version of J.Cole possible.

Ironically, the best cuts on the album are the “Interludes,” which are neither fully fleshed out stories nor are they produced by Cole. “Mo Money” features playful turns of phrase over moody production, and “Ain’t That Some Shit” has Cole acting braggadocious over a hurried beat with a speedy double-time flow. These work because they are not over-thought and feel like Cole genuinely enjoyed recording them, while the rest of the album has the distinct feel of being a labor for Jermaine. One can only hope the sales figures prove it to be a fruitful, but this is far from the classic that I’m sure Cole set out to make.

Villuminati
Influence infused
hard-hitting introduction
with poor use of slurs

Land of the Snakes
Reminiscing of
old days, when girls were loose just
like expectations

Power Trip feat. Miguel
Airy flutes, shaking
bass. Best mainstream hit so far,
but let Wale down.

Mo Money
Quotable wordplay,
lighthearted observations,
accidentally good.

Trouble
Detailing female
wants and needs while assuming
twelve-year replay time

Runaway
Faithfulness is hard.
Cowardice, disguised bravely
as deep thoughtfulness

She Knows
Sample Cults to gain
the sympathy of the alt,
then make cheating cool.

Rich Niggaz
More deep personal
tales with flashes of brilliance
hidden in eye-rolls

Forbidden Fruit
Flipped samples and slick
pairings disguise the fleeting
feelings of your life

Chaining Day
The constant struggle
of keeping up with rap tropes
through adding diamonds

Ain’t That Some Shit (Interlude)
Excited horns and
strings lay backdrop to remind
us Cole can rap well

Crooked Smile feat. TLC
A song about not
focusing on the critiques?
Take your own advice.

Let Nas Down
Defensive takes
on your idol not loving
everything you make

Born Sinner feat. James Fauntleroy
A soulful outro
with apologetic bars,
unneeded choir

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