Born Sinner, the heavily referential second LP for Roc Nation signee Jermaine Cole, borrows its title from the Notorious B.I.G.’s “Juicy”. By the time you’ve reached the record’s end, you’ll have seen him try on a number of familiar hats. He repurposes OutKast‘s “Da Art of Storytellin Pt. 1” (“Land of the Snakes”) and fashions it into an anti-L.A. tirade. He duets with the remaining members of TLC (“Crooked Smile”) on a song that can be read either as a breezy style mash-up or as sacrilege. He co-opts a snippet of a Mike Epps comedy routine and he flips Cults’ “Bad Things” on a song about cheating, a track that also doubles down with Dirty Projectors’ Amber Coffman showing up to coo on the (long, guitar-heavy) outro. “Forbidden Fruit” finds Cole swimming in A Tribe Called Quest’s “Electric Relaxation”, a track that also features a barely audible Kendrick Lamar. And toward the end, there’s a song-length love letter to Nas– “Used to print out Nas raps and tape ’em up on my wall/ My niggas thought they was words, but it was pictures I saw.”
Who is the person at the center of all this outward projection? We still don’t really know. Cole’s second, attention-grabbing mixtape, 2009’s The Warm Up, positioned him as an upstart unmoored from traditional conventions, an artist who could switch up flows, rap furiously and build his own hooks; Born Sinner finds himself standing in about the same place he was on Cole World: The Sideline Story, but the green room here is a little nicer. Listening to Born Sinner, you can’t help but think of the gold standards of the modern era, among them Kanye West‘s first two albums as well as Kendrick Lamar‘s 2012 opus good kid, m.A.A.d. City (“Let Nas Down” can certainly be viewed as Cole’s answer to West’s “Big Brother”, which Cole references on the hook). Part of the reason you can’t help but think of them is because Cole keeps bringing them up– when you constantly point to the work of others, comparisons with them are inevitable. But while the production (mostly by Cole himself) favors the soulful, laid-back vibe of College Dropout and the string swoops of Late Registration, there’s very little to make it distinct, something more than a nod to the past.
Once in a while he can create something catchy– the Miguel-featuring “Power Trip” almost seems like it was designed in a lab for radio rotation but the album as a whole splices together musical eras and reference without much purpose. Which is too bad, because some sonic innovation might direct folks away from some of Born Sinner‘s more grievous lyrical howlers: “My verbal AK slay faggots/ And I don’t mean no disrespect whenever I say faggot, okay faggot?” Later, a starry eyed Cole gets philosophical: “Niggas say turn up, hoes say turn up/ Only bad thing about a star is they burn up.” He finds something that rhymes with Kanye– Wanyá, as in Boyz II Men’s Wanyá Morris– and races to build a line about growing up, a boy to a man, you see. On “Miss America”: “I’mma fuck your daughters, I’mma burn your flag.” It goes on like this.
At its best, Born Sinner, showcases J. Cole’s overall musicality, pairing his ability as a lyricist with a more broadly developed production palette. In a heat, he can rattle off some fierce rejoinders (See: “Niggaz Know”). But several releases deep into Cole’s growing catalogue, we haven’t been delivered the savior that Jay-Z’s “A Star is Born” seemed to anoint. (The latter’s current indifference to Cole has become so pronounced that Cole has to keep squashing beef rumors.) Though much has been made of Cole’s decision to bump up Born Sinner‘s release to the same day as Kanye’s Yeezus, Cole is popular to a degree that suggests his sales will be competitive with Kanye’s divisive-by-design Yeezus. That popularity, which has grown through a handful of big singles, is a testament to the fans who’ve been with him since his come up, fans rewarded with a recent string of $1 “Dollar and a Dream” performances taking place this week. But Born Sinner didn’t turn out to be a reward in itself.