June 18, 2013 5:30pm PT by Jillian Aubin
J. Cole's 'Born Sinner': What the Critics Are Saying
After a series of setbacks, J. Cole’s sophomore album finally hit stores this week, going toe-to-toe with Kanye West’s highly anticipated Yeezus.
The 28-year-old rapper skyrocketed to prominence in 2009 after signing with Jay-Z’s label, Roc Nation. Cole’s 2011 album debuted to positive reviews and hit No. 1 on the Billboard 200. The follow-up, Cole World: The Sideline, further cemented his place as one of rap's premiere MCs.
In Born Sinner, Cole, through self-examination, takes listeners on a personal journey of his last two years. The North Carolina native addresses infidelity, the music industry and the struggle to remain true to his own artistic vision. Critics agree that the rapper is not afraid to show his own insecurities.
Billboard’s Alex Gale notes, “The opening track is a well-aimed warning shot. Over a backdrop of dramatic, rising strings, Notorious B.I.G. samples (‘Juicy’) and a live choir -- a sonic theme of the album -- the first words Cole utters are an adlib: ‘It's way darker this time.’ Spoiler: The rest of the album definitely lives up to that. But Cole is also more confident than ever.”
Cole’s conviction is evident in his careful production of tracks such as “She Knows” feat. Amber Coffman. Gale continues, “You have to give it to J. Cole, for on almost every song, he puts in extra work to take the production beyond the usual looping rap track and transforms them into something bigger and more moving.”
MTV.com’s Nadeska Alexis also took care to highlight Cole’s production successes, “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.”
Not surprsingly, sharing a release date with Kanye West prompted many critics to compares the two.
“The track [“Born Sinner”], and album, end with another old-school Kanye flourish: an acapella choir and handclaps,” writes Billboard’s Gale. “Yes, nowadays Yeezy is onto the abrasive, high-art futurism of ‘New Slaves’ and ‘Black Skinhead,’ but hearing Cole update his old trademarks so skillfully almost make you miss a Kanye that was aiming to please more than challenge.”
August Brown of the Los Angeles Times agrees, observing that Cole’s album is a departure from the flamboyance of Yeezus. “J. Cole's‘Born Sinner’ is at the other end of the universe from Kanye West'slatest -- a quieter, self-examining rap record that's short on audacity but long on workman-like singles,” he writes.
Vibe’s Adelle Platon argues that Born Sinner firmly establishes J. Cole’s position in the music industry. “Born Sinner serves as J. Cole’s rite of passage into being rap’s potentially lethal contender. There are no filler tracks trying too hard to be radio singles or records make for the club; the curse of the sophomore slump eludes him. It’s a pensive piece straight through, preaching to the undergrads who could barely afford college or the cheaters trying to fight temptations but most importantly, the individual trying to save him from himself.”
Others note an honesty and sincerity to Sinner.
Writes Jon Dolan for Rolling Stone: “'Sometimes I brag like Hov/ Sometimes I'm real like Pac,' J. Cole raps on his second LP. Sometimes he's both -- a verbal powerhouse and a self-emptying truth-sayer. The flagship signee to Jay-Z's record label spins dervish rhymes over dazzling self-produced tracks (see the Outkast-sampling "Land of the Snakes"). His riffs on racism, homophobia and misogyny have more lyrical cunning than insight. But when it comes to twisting himself into Kanye-size pretzels of career-oriented real talk, he's a champ.”