June 18th is probably going to be a memorable date for hip-hop fans, given the massive hype train that Kanye West generated via his alternative media tactics. In particular, the sharing of the release date between West and fellow producer/rapper/Jay-Z disciple, J. Cole, has stirred up something of a frenzy. The affair is reminiscent of when 50 Cent went head-to-head with West in 2007, in a sales battle that would end with West's "victory" and the realization of gangster rap's popular decline. (At least you tried, Curtis.) So the general consensus is that once more West will take home the gold in the all-important competition that is first-week sales, but when examining the batch of June 18th albums, it's clear that J. Cole has created, if not a perfect product, at least a largely original one.
Not even close to a perfect product, really. For instance, Born Sinner
has convinced me that J. Cole is a sex addict - either that, or is addicted to sharing his sexual exploits on record and then feeling bad about them. Born Sinner
is obsessed with sex. Six of the sixteen tracks here have sex or women as the motif, and even more than that refer to the ideas raised by those six songs. By the time "She Knows" rolls around, the concept of J. Cole's guilt has become repetitive and detestable. Fortunately, after that song, the topics diversify, but the listener has already been bludgeoned over the head with the image of Cole plowing through groupies while his loyal girlfriend sighs resignedly at home. Moreover, Cole has a bad habit of lapsing into idol-worship. While opener "Villuminati" proclaims "Sometimes I brag like Hov" over a Notorious B.I.G. vocal sample, Cole's braggadocio, flow, and lyricism are all more emulative of Kanye. The imitation is not an issue that encompasses Born Sinner
, but crops up enough to be noticeable, and detracts from Cole's originality. He also repeats sociopolitical ideas unique to other rappers, most notably on "Villuminati", where he declares that a black man would never be allowed in the Illuminati - a point already raised in almost the exact same way by Kendrick Lamar.
But Cole is also capable of bringing his own personality and ideas to the table, and that's where Born Sinner
shines. True to the title, the biggest theme of the album is immorality: the immorality of infidelity, the immorality of America's societal standards, and the immorality of creating music for mainstream success rather than artistic vision. "Crooked Smile" demonstrates this best, taking female self-esteem (a topic discussed in Kendrick's "No Makeup" and Drake's "Every Drake Song Ever") and putting his own spin on it. It's slightly pandering, but Cole admits that, which gives the song charm - and then he puts the whole idea in context of American celebrity culture. "Crooked Smile" is catchy, sure, but even more importantly, it turns a cliched idea into something distinctive.
Originality in production and subject matter is this album's greatest strength. "Power Trip"'s powerful beat contrast nicely with the emotional lyrics to produce a compelling ode to both Cole's girlfriend and to hip-hop. "Miss America" (which, shamefully, is not included on the regular edition of the album) turns an indie-folk sample into the backbone of a rage-filled political song that rejects American ideals and instead proclaims "I'mma pass your classes, I'mma learn your craft/I'mma fuck your daughters, I'mma burn your flag". "Rich Niggaz" speculates on the loss of morality that comes with wealth, over, of all things, a ukulele, and it surprisingly works well. The outside production is great as well; Elite's help with "Crooked Smile" made that song a highlight, and No I.D.'s presence on the jazzy, horn-driven "Let Nas Down" with Cole's experience of disappointing one's idols create another standout. A couple songs could hardly be said to have been produced by Cole, though. "LAnd of the Snakes" is an OutKast song with slightly different percussion, and "Forbidden Fruit" is just a louder version of A Tribe Called Quest's "Electric Relaxation". The songs aren't particularly bad, but credit should certainly not go to Cole for producing them, and they're weaker than those he put considerable effort into.
There's also a notable amount of filler, unfortunately. "Chaining Day" is filled with an obnoxiously saccharine xylophone throughout that renders it unlistenable. "Ain't That Some Shit" is just a profanity-laden diatribe, full of generic boasts and mediocre lyricism that's out of place within the album. And the skits throughout this album add just about nothing conceptually, and I question why they're even here while songs like "Miss America", "Sparks Will Fly", and "Niggaz Know" got shunted to the deluxe edition. Presumably, it's because the hot new trope in hip-hop is being cinematic and resembling a narrative, especially with the success of Kendrick Lamar's good kid, m.A.A.d. city
, but those three songs fit in far better than the skits do and actually improve Born Sinner
J. Cole still has to grow into his own as a rapper and a producer, as his personal perspectives on the topics of this album are far more interesting than his imitation of idols or peers. But Born Sinner
is still more enjoyable than listening to sessions of Mac Miller's singing lessons or watching Kanye West masturbate vigorously to his reflection while house music blares in the background.
Oh, wait, that new album from Madlib's alter ego comes out on June 18th, too.
You'll get 'em next time, Cole.