Release Date: June 18, 2013
Label: Roc Nation
Born Sinner is derailed by its penultimate track. “Let Nas Down” finds the North Carolina-raised J. Cole wallowing in his feelings after learning that his first album’s breakthrough single, “Work Out,” disgusted his fellow MC and apparent idol. The song casts Nas as a wandering hip-hop bard and Cole’s current label boss and benefactor, Jay-Z, as the corporate beast who’s demanding a radio hit. Instead of resonating as an emotive confessional, though, the song only spotlights the lack of fire on Born Sinner. Cue the whining chorus (“I can’t believe I let Nas down”) and the rather defeatist conclusion: “Long live the idols, may they never be your rivals.” Certainly not with that attitude.
This sophomore set is wracked by a curious envy. Cole himself has become something of a wholesome star: He attempts to write from the heart, crafts sophisticated beats, and embraces a clean-cut persona. But his music and image lack the sparkle and pizazz of the rap mega-gods, and he seems unsatisfied with his place in the pantheon. Vicious opener “Villuminati” includes a muddled timeline detailing his ongoing relationship with Jay-Z, while on the short “Mo Money,” he throws in what could be a barb about Jigga owning such a tiny fraction of the Barclay’s Center: “the type of niggas that laugh at Hov money / Billionaires with petroleum and coal money.” Ms. Carter is also subject to what might’ve been meant as a cheeky wink, but comes off as a frustrated and bitter glare: “Beyoncé told me that she want to cop the blue Bugatti / That shit is more than what I’m worth, I think she knew it probably.”
Elsewhere, Hov’s fellow throne fetishist Kanye West is mentioned on “Forbidden Fruit,” which notes that this album and Yeezus are out on the same day. It’s a bemusing song: The production recreates A Tribe Called Quest’s “Electric Relaxation,” but the quirky bass line and warm-keys motif are so recognizable that it’s a brow-furrowing challenge to hear anything other than Q-Tip and Phife’s original vocals in the space between the beat and the new raps. Cole himself (along with Kendrick Lamar’s guest spot) ends up evaporating entirely — he’s upstaged by loftier artists who aren’t even there.
There’s a more appealing, mild-mannered side to Cole that shines when he writes songs about relationships: The Miguel-abetted “Power Trip,” especially, teeters on the edge of blooming into a melancholic OutKast single. But other than the feisty “Villuminati,” Born Sinner is a lethargic listen. There’s nothing wrong with being influenced by Nas, but pandering for an idol’s approval rarely results in great music. Why should he care what Nas thinks? After all, that guy hasn’t had a relationship with a truly classic album since 1994. Cole should be fired up to make his own Illmatic, his own Reasonable Doubt, or his own College Dropout. But here he seems stuck somewhere between starstruck and envious, fawning over his idols instead of trying to take their crowns. A watched throne never beckons.