Tuesday, July 2, 2013

album review: 'born sinner' by j. cole

I feel like I owe a bit of an apology to J. Cole.

See, last December, I placed Jermaine Cole's breakout single 'Work Out' on my list of the Top Ten Worst Hit Songs of 2012, and going back to revisit that song today, I can definitely see why. Sure, the production is top-of-the-line, but the beat is annoying as hell, the subject matter is reprehensible, and J Cole's voice was pretty damn nasal (not quite as bad as Kendrick Lamar's, but that's a conversation for another day). But if I'm going back to the song now, I'd have a hard time calling branding worse than 'Payphone' by Maroon 5 or '50 Ways To Say Goodbye' by Train. I'll definitely be reevaluating my placement of the song at the end of the year, but until then, I don't think I was entirely fair to J. Cole, calling him a Drake-wannabe and taking inspiration from Chris Brown.

And to be blunt, that's not fair to the guy for a number of reasons. For starters, 'Work Out' had seven writers, one of them being Kanye West (who I can and will promptly blame for some of the douchebaggery on display on that track) and for another, it's the sort of single that all rappers jumping onto mainstream radio are expected to make (it's kind of terrifying how often this happens). Hell, I'd bet that half of Macklemore's success is linked to the fact that he broke onto mainstream radio using themes that flew in the face of the modern rap scene. But in late 2011, I completely get why J. Cole released 'Work Out', and given that it was the only song I knew by the guy, I passed judgement early without listening to his debut album. 

So when I not only heard that his first album tackled difficult subject matter (that popped up in later singles, I'd come to discover), but that his second album was coming out, I figured I'd take the opportunity to get a little deeper into an artist I may have unfairly dismissed as a sellout. And I'm glad I did, because Cole World: The Sideline Story is actually a pretty damn solid rap album, clicking in all of the right areas that would make me highly appreciate J. Cole as a legitimate talent. His instrumentation tends towards old-school sampling and classical instruments (which is always a plus for me), and his choice of guest stars (including his idol Jay-Z) is well-timed and chosen in a way not to overshadow him on his debut (a lesson that even veteran rappers don't always follow). And while he owes a lot of his rapping technique to Jay-Z and Kanye West, on his best tracks he emulates the best traits of both rappers (the class and dignity of Jay-Z and the uncompromising honesty of Kanye). 

But what really put J. Cole in my good books was the lyrical subject matter, mostly because he nails a very precise balance of sticking to 'traditional' rap topics and adding enough nuance to elevate the material, mostly in the way he includes real empathy for everyone involved. And that's not even talking about the rap tracks where he jumps headlong into subjects most rappers wouldn't touch - like abortion - and it's here where J. Cole really shines, injecting smarter social commentary and nuance into the discussion than the entire Republican party could every imagine. It's also indicative that J. Cole (who also handles the majority of the production on his album) should be left alone to do his own thing with his album, and the solitary example where there was major interference was 'Work Out', easily the worst song on the album.

So, with all of that praise, where does J. Cole stumble? Well, if I was being harsh, I'd say the biggest flaws come through in J. Cole's performance, specifically in his delivery and occasionally his lyrics. Now, don't get me wrong, the subject matter is often incredibly solid, but too often there are double rhymes and the occasional songwriting slip-up that take me out of the experience. And like most rappers, J. Cole sounds at his best when he's got a lot of energy, and while his weariness does occasionally pay dividends on some tracks, too often it can make them a little tedious to listen through. A bigger problem, however, is that J. Cole doesn't quite do enough on Cole World: The Sideline Story to distinguish himself from his main influences. A lot of the instrumentation in particular is very much reminiscent of early Kanye West albums, and while J. Cole does differentiate himself in his lyrical content, he could do more to evolve his sound.

But then again, that was his major label debut, and one had to expect that J. Cole would have to make something mostly conventional to sell it to the record label (although considering the mutating state of rap music and the record labels' increasing desperation for hits in the face of acts like Macklemore, I bet J. Cole could have afforded to go for broke and they still would have bought into it). So in following most acts, I expected the major innovation to come on J. Cole's second album, unfortunately released on the same day as Kanye's insane Yeezus. So how does it fare?

Well, to be honest, I'm not quite sure. While I definitely believe J. Cole's Born Sinner is a very, very good album, I also think it might not have been the necessary step he needed to take to step up to the big leagues in my eyes. But then again, I get the disquieting feeling that might have been part of the point.

Let me explain, and to start, I'm going to have to talk about the instrumentation. Initially, I'll admit I was disappointed right out of the gates, because the first lines of the album were 'It's way darker this time'. It's a cliche that most artists go darker on their second albums, and often times, it's the wrong move, mostly because half of the artists can't pull it off or come across as petulant as they bitch about various topics, the most common being how fame isn't all it's cracked up to be. And sure enough, that's exactly the route J. Cole took with Born Sinner, not only going into exhaustive detail about the unpleasantness of the industry, but taking his music in a bleaker, less energetic direction that only emphasizes the feeling. I was extremely tempted to slam the album with the 'Drake curse' right out of the gate (for reference, the Drake curse is something where most hip-hop and rap have become utterly joyless and tedious of being more 'serious', and it's called that because I blame Drake for it). 

Now, don't get me wrong, most of the production here doesn't sound bad, per se - it's just that it just has the same dreariness that has overwhelmed so much of modern hip-hop. And it doesn't help matters that J. Cole just doesn't have the energy he needs to galvanize the material and lend it real force. Now I'd argue J. Cole manages to make this work a lot better than most - his thematic through-line for Born Sinner is directly focused on the darker elements of modern hip-hop, and the emotions he brings to the table do correlate well with the instrumentation. His weariness doesn't feel like a pose, so much so that when he actually does attempt to brag, it comes across half-hearted and unconvincing - which, again, might have been part of the point.

So let's talk about the lyrics, where J. Cole's biggest strengths are. And really, all throughout Born Sinner, I was continually impressed by his smart wordplay, choice of subject matter, and additional nuance he added to the album. One of J. Cole's strengths is his college education, and it's clear that he's working to leverage his intelligence and knowledge however he can in his lyrics, which is something I definitely respect. And in framing typical 'cash, money, hoes' anthems through irony and sarcasm and additional context while still maintaining empathy, J. Cole is able to show the inside of the hip-hop world with some impressive depth. And like with Kanye's Yeezus, he's able to recognize his place in that world and skewers the nastier elements while not condemning the genre (the latter of which not even Kanye could really pull off, but I'll get to that). It's a tough balancing act, but J. Cole pulls it off.

However, despite the lyrical dexterity and the occasionally solid production, it's very clear that J. Cole is standing in the shadows of his betters, particularly Jay-Z, Kanye, and Nas. Hell, on Born Sinner there is a song called 'Let Nas Down' where he laments his choice to write 'Work Out' (at Jay-Z's insistence they have a single) and Nas' condemnation of him selling out (the song, fortunately, is smart enough to point out Nas did sell out too). But songs like these and the multiple mentions of Kanye only throw into sharp relief the other artists, and on personality alone, J. Cole can't stand at the same level as them.

Let's bring this conversation back to Kanye West briefly, because J. Cole flat out says he's releasing his album the same day as Kanye's Yeezus. But when one looks at Yeezus and compares it with Born Sinner, there is so much more personality, energy, ego, and sheer audacity in Kanye's work that J. Cole can't help but look like a pale shadow in comparison. And while I will say that J. Cole is probably a smarter lyricist, Kanye West just has so much more to say and the balls in which to say it, not to mention more interesting production and a lot more energy. 

And this comes back to an unfortunate truth when it comes to music: you can be the smartest, cleverest wordsmith in the room, but if your delivery cannot match your lyrics or your instrumentation sucks the energy out of poetry, people are going to ignore it or find your work tedious. Sure, it might be insightful, but it's analogous to the difference between reading A Clockwork Orange and watching Stanley Kubrick's version of it on film - namely that while you might lose some of the finer detail, you'll ultimately create a more entertaining and perhaps more nuanced work. 

And look, I know it's not entirely fair to compare J. Cole to Kanye West - but I can't help but think about whenever J. Cole repeatedly invites the comparison in his lyrics and rhythmic delivery! And while there are occasionally witty lines and interesting concepts explored, there's a certain lack of flair and texture in J. Cole's material for it to stand out from the crowd. In comparison to, say, Frank Ocean (another act who explored complex subject material through a downbeat, meandering, often powerful album - all of which I would use as adjectives to describe Born Sinner), J. Cole just lacks poetic texture in his lyrics, and while his instrumentation and delivery might match his lyrical themes, there isn't enough that stands out here to really be all that memorable as I've struggled to write this review.

So in summary, I honestly do think you all should check out Born Sinner, but here's my qualification - I do not advise you listen to it on rotation after anything Kanye put out recently. I don't want to make excuses for it, but at the same time, I think it will hold up a lot better when not in stark comparison with Yeezus. But at the same time, I'd like to see more innovation out of J. Cole, taking those whip-smart lyrics and fusing them with some energy and potent instrumentation.

There still a lot of real potential on display here - J. Cole just needs to realize it.

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