If you’ve seen Dave Chappelle’s Block Party, chances are you missed J. Cole’s cameo. At the time that festival was filmed in Brooklyn, Jermaine Cole was still just a St. John’s University student who had yet to be signed to Jay-Z’s Roc Nation, had yet to release his acclaimed mixtapes. He wasn’t on the stage as an opening act, either; the lanky Cole was smack dab in the middle of the audience, a dozen feet from the stage, looking on with a poker face. His expression while watching Talib Kweli, Mos Def and Common perform suggested he was thinking, “I should be on that stage with them.” As the first signee to Roc Nation, expectations were high for Fayetteville, N.C.-bred Cole, whom Jay-Z likened to Nas for his relatable, poignant storytelling style. He met those expectations with 2011’s debut, Cole World: The Sideline Story, which spawned hits “Work Out” and Missy Elliott-featuring “Nobody’s Perfect.” As a producer, Cole impressed with the instrumental for Kendrick Lamar’s “Hiii Power” and had a scene-stealing verse on Jay-Z’s Blueprint 3 cut “A Star Is Born,” cementing himself as one of hip-hop brightest new stars.
After a headlining stint on Rock the Bells festival last summer, Cole’s lead single for his sophomore album Born Sinner, “Power Trip” featuring Miguel, indicated he wasn’t about to lose his momentum. With the release of the nearly flawless Yours Truly EPs, all signs pointed to a very promising Born Sinner – and as expected, the album finds Cole in his element, continuing his country boy-turned-rap superstar narrative. While some critics have dismissed him as boring or lacking star quality, Cole’s appeal is actually in his ability to relate to college-age kids (and those of us who remember those days or the high school kids who have yet to experience them). Born Sinner is a grounded album, with Cole referencing his past and reminiscing about what life was like before he became a star. He is modestly boastful and shows emotion with both vulnerability and insecurity.
One of the most intriguing songs on Born Sinner is “Let Nas Down,” where Cole openly discusses his reaction to finding out from producer/Def Jam exec No I.D. that Nas wasn’t too enamored with his single “Work Out.” Conceptually, it’s a very Nas-like record. Cole’s candid perspective here offers a nice balance to female-centric songs such as “Power Trip” and “She Knows” featuring Amber Coffman. The haunting “Rick N***az” is the type of song that few artists of Cole’s stature could make, as he contemplates power and money: “I took a train down memory lane/ and watched little Jermaine do his thang before he made his name/it’s like Sony signed Basquiat, he gave it all he got/ and now the n***a don’t paint the same.” Kendrick Lamar guests on “Forbidden Fruit”, a stripped-down cut featuring sample work from A Tribe Called Quest’s “Electric Relaxation”; here Cole is more aggressive but still candid and probing as he addresses how women perceive him and vice versa.
Cole’s ability to tap into subjects that can bring in female fans at the risk of being labeled soft can’t be overlooked. Case-in-point is the surefire future single “Crooked Smile,” (featuring TLC), a male take on the group’s female empowerment anthem “Unpretty.” The rising piano riffs and T-Boz and Chilli’s vocals combine for a stirring song that is poised for a pop crossover. The effective R&B hook formula is also well-executed on the title track, which features James Fauntleroy, and the Jhene Aiko-featured “Sparks Will Fly.”
Born Sinner is a strong sophomore showing from J. Cole. Throughout the album, he’s self-assured without being too boastful while remaining grounded and candid. In a week in which Kanye West’s Yeezus serves up an atypical hip-hop album, Born Sinner is about as close to what classic hip-hop sounds like is as it gets. Paying homage to the genre’s greats while continuing his own story, Cole embodies tenacity and determination, especially taking in how far he’s come since that inadvertent Dave Chappelle’s Block Party cameo.