Even when you finally get up off the Sideline, there’s still “hell” to pay. J. Cole gets that agonizing truth off his chest over the course of 16 tracks, and more immediately when he introduces his sophomore album, Born Sinner, by telling listeners, point blank, “It’s way darker this time.”
The 28-year-old has been on a turbulent journey since he signed his Roc Nation deal in 2009, where at some points he’s admitted to “going through depression, trying to make it to happiness.” Those moments of pain and triumph — in the industry, in his relationship, against his own demons — weave throughout the deeply personal album in a struggle between sin and redemption, with Cole pleading, “Please give me my soul” on the album’s opening track before reconciling, “I was born sinning but I live better than that,” on the final song and title track “Born Sinner.”
“Villuminati” opens the album on a high note, boosted by soaring strings, as Cole gives love to both Jay-Z and the Notorious B.I.G. on the hook rapping, “Sometimes I brag like Hov,” while splicing in a skillfully placed “Juicy” sample that incorporates, “born sinner, the opposite of a winner.” He doesn’t say it outright until the end of the track but here, at the beginning of his album, Cole takes the chance to reintroduce himself, confident in his successes (“you n—-s famous on the Internet, I’m real-life hot”) yet acutely aware of where he’s yet to go, with one of his most lighthearted and captivating lines, “Beyoncé told me she that she want to cop the new Bugatti/ That sh– is more than what I’m worth/ I think she knew it probably.”
The album’s first skit “Kerney Semon” finds a phony preacher peddling false hope and transitions Cole into “Land of Snakes,” where he recounts gradual successes like moving on up from the ’Ville to NYC (“riding through South Side Queens like Fiddy”) and being aware of deception, over a nostalgic sample of Outkast’s hypnotizing synths from “Da Art of Storytellin’ (Part 1).” Lead single “Power Trip” flows smoothly into the pace and tempo Cole has set thus far, consistent with soulful melodies and deep bass on an album that is almost entirely self-produced.
After his twisted love song, Cole gets back to cold rhyming on “Mo Money (Interlude)” where for one minute and 18 seconds he ends every line with “money” in its every form, from “old money” to “stay afloat money.”
He gets even more ferocious about the perils of dollars on the scathing “Rich N—az,” addressing the villains who are always “selling me dreams and telling me things,” all the while asking, “how much for your soul?” Cole admits on this track that he fears one day he’ll “become heartless and numb from all the ménages,” but on both “Runaway” and “She Knows” he battles with the current pressure to remain faithful. On the mournful, piano-heavy “Runaway,” he laments the ups and downs of a 10-year relationship where he craves freedom and on the uptempo “She Knows,” featuring the Dirty Projectors’ Amber Coffman, he admits to dishonesty, later switching up the beat and blending their vocals to close out the track.
One of Cole’s most grandiose production moments on the album comes on “Trouble,” where you might be compelled to restart the track and turn up the volume to properly prepare for the avalanche of bass and choir vocals that kick in as the Roc Nation rapper paints a dark picture of all the trouble that follows a Born Sinner with his “god flow.” The evolution of his production is evidently clear.
That contrasts nicely with the mellow, sunny vibes on the Kendrick Lamar-featured “Forbidden Fruit,” which samples Ronnie Foster’s “Mystic Brew,” (made infamous on A Tribe Called Quest’s “Electric Relaxation”) and finds K. Dot lending vocals to the hook. It’s Cole who has some powerful words to spit, addressing his decision to go head-to-head with Yeezus, “When I say I’m the greatest I ain’t talking ’bout later/I’ma drop the album the same day as Kanye, just to show the boys the man now like Wanya.”
Elsewhere on the album, J. Cole celebrates his “Chaining Day” with mixed emotions: the elation of receiving his first Jesus piece (“I ain’t got no investment portfolio, but my black and white diamonds shining like an Oreo”) mixed with shame (“money short so this jewelry is like a weave/meant to deceive”) while the single “Crooked Smile” featuring TLC finds him spewing some inspirational words.
Then the waves of emotion on Born Sinner finally cascade into the outstanding cut “Let Nas Down,” where Cole recounts the struggle to find a single for Sideline Story and the hurt he felt after learning via No I.D. that Nas was disappointed in “Work Out.” The bluesy beat, heavy with saxophone and sampled from Fela Kuti’s “Gentleman” is the perfect backdrop for Cole to spill guts about his fanaticism for the Queensbridge rapper, finally meeting his idol and then having to cope with harsh words, as he raps, “This is for the n—- that said that hip-hop was dead, I went to hell to resurrect it/how could you fail to respect it?” Hopefully, Nas understands now. “Apologies to OGs for sacrificing my art, but I’m here for a greater purpose/ I knew right from the start.”
Catch J. Cole, Waka Flocka Flame, Chance the Rapper and 360 on “RapFix Live” Wednesday at 4 p.m. ET on RapFix.MTV.com and on MTV Jams. Be sure to join the Twitter conversation using the hashtag #RapFixLive. Send your questions for the artists to @MTVRapFix!