Since I unabashedly said that my entire discography was better than Cole World, it behooves me to look at his second album, 2013’s Born Sinner. Why? Well, you can’t just say that your entire lo-fi rap collection is better than someone’s first mainstream album and not look at their discography, right? Plus, you know, I find it both fun and cathartic to analyze J. Cole’s music as a music fan who neither blindly capes for Cole nor blindly hates the man. So, without any further stalling, let’s revisit Born Sinner.
On a whim, in mid-2009, I copped all of Cole’s projects available. So, the first time I heard J. Cole, he referred to himself as the man who has “a set of horns and a halo,” reflecting the duality of humanity. I became a fan. I knew his shortcomings, but I felt some of his strengths could–and would–eventually shine through en masse. Cole, evolving from the hoop dreams-infused series of projects prior to Sinner, plays up that duality on this project. Additionally, when the album was released, it was the more-subdued yin to Yeezus‘s lo-fi, over-the-top yang. A project that evolved with its artist, Born Sinner was slated to be the album which put Cole on the lofty pedestal he’s been playing around with since The Come-Up. But, does it?
The intro, “Villuminati” is probably more known these days for its use of “the (other) f-word” than anything. Well, at least he’s not boring anymore, I guess. On a serious note, I get what Cole was trying to do with his use of the word. However, like his “artistic/autistic, retarded” line from the Jodeci Freestyle (and, funnily enough, his “next three bars for the retards” line in this very song), Cole’s intentions didn’t match his intellect on this one. On this project, we were supposed to get a “way darker,” more mature Cole. If you take this intro as a testament of that maturation, it seems like Cole’s going back to the same places he went in Cole World (cheesy jokes, overly-intricate “mansplanations” that don’t really mean shit, etc.)
Until, that is, you get to the third verse. It’s not the most lyrically in-depth verse, but we get a view into Cole’s head. He’s a dude who wants the fame, but wants his “soul” back as well. He wants to make the radio tracks but also make the anti-radio tracks that still get burn. Ultimately, it sets up, without being overly dramatic, the theme of the album: a young man in the 2010s who wants to be all-encompassing but wants to do so without being completely compromising. Sure, we get the cringeworthy punchlines, mansplaning and whatnot, but there’s more of a balance between that stuff and the lyrically introspective artist fans love Cole to be.
Cole’s ability to flesh out a concept has improved since CW, and that’s best displayed in the placement of “Villuminati,” the “Kerney Sermon” skit, and the next track, “LAnd of the Snakes.” It’s a bit hamfisted, in that the song after we spell out the dualities and falsehoods of both some sects of organized religion and the music business, we get a song about (what else?) sex, how people seem to “come out the womb with [their] dick hard,” and possibly an allusion to the “snakes” in L.A. It has some pretty “eh” lines, but nothing as blatantly “ugh” as “Stevie with his glasses off/cause I still don’t see hope.” Seems like we’re seeing some progress as Cole as an artist.
After this pseudo-breakthrough, we get “Power Trip,” the half-stripper anthem, half-“love letter to my love and my music” song. I remember when this joint dropped, I went to the strip club with some friends and there was this dancer who danced to this track, followed by “Wicked Games” and “Panty Wetter.”
The video is better than the song, in that it fleshes out the story to the point where we see Cole obsessing and killing for what he loves (in the video, he murders Miguel to get the woman he’s been fantasizing about). It’s a dark track that, like Kendrick’s “Poetic Justice,” feels all light and fluffy and shit until you see it within the context of the entire album. Screw the lovey-dovey feelings you may get hearing this one on the radio. Cole’s a fuckin’ psycho in this one and goes on a power trip to murderize anything that stands in the way of him and his goals.