To say J. Cole has lofty ambitions for this album may be a slight understatement. From staging an elaborate ‘cinematic’ listening party (involving visuals and, of course, popcorn) to pushing back the release date of the album to coincide with the release of Kanye West’s Yeezus, Cole’s confidence and belief in his work cannot be called into question.
Cole’s first full-length album (Cole World: The Sideline Story) was received well by the media but many fans felt let down, feeling that the rapper had greater potential than was on show and that his independent mix tapes showcased his style far better. This may have been due to a few tracks from that album being considered too ‘commercial’ by the hip-hop community, particularly the single ‘Work Out’, which was criticised by many, including rap legend Nas.
Cole has clearly sought to rectify this problem by creating a serious, solid body of work, including a direct response to the criticism (the penultimate track ‘Let Nas Down’).
From beginning to end, Born Sinner’s main theme is that of temptation and Cole is very open and honest about the temptations that have befallen him, in particular, the difficulty he has with monogamy.
Cole’s storytelling is perhaps his greatest lyrical asset. The lead single ‘Power Trip’, which deals with a previous love interest, is a prime example of this and the simple chorus vocals from Miguel (along with a subtle Eminem reference – “Fuck it, I’m on one”) complete a stand out track.
The main strength of this album, however, is the production. Cole handled almost all producer duties himself and has done an absolutely outstanding job. The attention to detail in the tracks is sublime and the use of big, dark soundscapes is inventive and gloomy without becoming clichéd.
The only let down with the album is a pacing problem; after opening track ‘Villuminati’, the remaining tracks are predominantly slower tempo and the album starts to drag around two thirds of the way through. Despite this, the lyrical content and production values alone make this album well worth a listen.