J. Cole could have called his sophomore set Confessions Of A Born Sinner. The hour-long offering plays like a recorded rip of a confessional box sit down with Jermaine, who pours out his signature “from-the-heart-shit” throughout the album’s 16-tracks. And while there’s a handful of vintage Cole here, Born Sinner also veers into previously uncharted territory for the 28-year-old, who goes to great lengths to prove just how conflicted and complicated he is.
Take the bluesy “Let Nas Down” for example, the album’s most honest moment. Here, Cole tackles his own insecurities with a story of the heartache felt when the QB legend shunned his bubbly hit “Work Out.” “I couldn’t help but think that maybe I had made a mistake/ I mean you made “You Owe Me” dawg, I thought that you could relate” he contends, over the saxophone-laden backdrop. The same sentiment can be found on “Rich Niggaz,” where a middle finger wagging Cole walks the line between feeling accomplished and resentful. “And watching little Jermaine do his thang before he made a name/ It’s like Sony signed Basquiat, he gave it all he got now the nigga don’t paint the same thang” he raps.
Much of the album is an inner battle between a lust for the fast life (groupies and things of that nature) and wanting something more substantial. The wobbling emotions can be a bit much at times, and Cole doesn’t quite have the finesse of a Drake to pull this balance off. “Trouble,” “She Knows” and “Runaway” are conceptually repetitious, and Cole’s introductory proclamation “It’s way darker this time,” feels like a calculated attempt to give a genuinely nice guy an edge.
Born Sinner’s best moments are when he embraces the persona that initially garnered him praise. “Power Trip”, “Crooked Smile” and “Let Nas Down” are the album’s strongest tracks, and they feel like the rapper who created The Warm Up, which only becomes problematic at times because of Cole’s insistence to produce almost all of his work. But while BS may not exhibit the growth sonically or conceptually that fans may have anticipated after hearing Cole’s early work, he remains too gifted lyrically, too keen of a storyteller, and too emotionally open for his sophomore LP to be anything less than impressive, but not overly so.—Ben Simms