NEW YORK — J. Cole didn’t necessarily visualize the listening session for his sophomore album being held in a movie theater, but the Roc Nation rapper was pleased that he’d succeeded in getting fans and media to stream Born Sinner in its entirety — uninterrupted and without the chatter — Thursday night at the SVA theater in New York.
Attendees were asked to download the Lisnr app and plug in with a pair of Beats by Dre Studio headphones so they could hear the album exactly the way Cole does during production. Though the Born Sinner stream was scheduled to begin simultaneously in eight cities, Cole needed to get something off his chest first. Fans were clamoring to hear his collaboration with Kendrick Lamar on “Forbidden Fruit,” but it was the track “Let Nas Down” that required a 15-minute explanation, during which Cole did his best to make “a long story short.”
The tale began in 2009 when he was rolling off the success of The Warm Up and celebrating his new deal with Roc Nation. Dropping an album seemed easy enough, but as Cole toured with Hov, watching him perform hits like “Big Pimpin'” — “The way that moved the crowd every night … I wanted one so bad,” he said — he began a torturous journey to find his album’s lead single, which lead him to some real career lows.
Though the pain in his story was obvious, Cole had a sense of humor as he explained Jay-Z’s reactions when he presented him with single options like “Who Dat,” “Higher” and “Can’t Get Enough” before finally getting to “Work Out.” He explained having to drop Friday Night Lights to keep his buzz alive, with no single confirmed two years after his big mixtape release.
“The next six months of my life was literally hell, which is what this album is about,” he explained. “Going through hell, tryna make it to heaven, going through depression, trying to make it to happiness. The next six months of my life, I was making some of the worst, most uninspired music of my life.”
The light at the end of that tunnel was “Work Out,” sampled from Kanye West’s “The New Workout Plan,” which Cole anticipated would be a “slow burn” on the charts but with plenty of staying power. Despite the single’s success, Cole’s feelings were hurt when he heard that Nas regarded the track as a big mistake in his otherwise promising career.
“I was hurt. I was like, ‘Damn, why he gon’ say that? They ain’t gon’ box me in, like they box him in,” Cole said of his reaction to Nas’ criticism. “I’m getting defensive, but really, I’m just hurt as a fan. I idolize that dude; I had his raps written on the wall.”
It goes without saying then that “Let Nas Down” is one of the most lyrically potent tracks on the album, with Cole packaging that 15-minute story into a track that entwines his idolization for Nas with the hurt he felt on lines like, “I got no one to blame/ I’m ashamed/ I let Nas down.”
Throughout the album, the darkness in Cole’s deeply personal verses are front and center as he reflects on struggles in the industry, in addition to his personal burdens. On the spacey “Runaway,” he delves into the difficulty of sustaining a 10-year relationship while feeling that he’s too young to settle down. “She Knows” broaches some similar girl issues over a more uptempo beat, with a feature from the Dirty Projectors’ Amber Coffman.
Some of his more menacing bars can be found on “Mo Money,” where Cole ends every line with “money,” rapping about the “type of n—as that laugh at Hov money,” and on “Rich N—az,” where he admits that his “worst fear is going broke” while directing his ire towards those who have always had excess.
The evolution of J. Cole’s production shines through on grandiose tracks like “Rich N—az,” tinged with electric guitar, “Villuminati” and “Trouble,” which incorporates the vocals of a gospel choir with deep, pounding bass. One of the most surprising reveals was Kendrick Lamar’s feature on the standout “Forbidden Fruit,” which didn’t include an actual verse from the Compton rapper. Over a sample of Ronnie Foster’s “Mystic Brew,” which became famous on A Tribe Called Quest’s “Electric Relaxation,” the TDE rapper lends his vocals primarily to the hook instead.