Like Talib Kweli, I’m convinced that J. Cole doesn’t really know how to distinguish between what’s good music and what’s bad music; that he’s discovered his niche (for Cole, that means slow-mid-tempo storytelling) and is sticking to it despite its issues (namely, the melodrama that’s often associated with slow-tempo storytelling and the monotony that’s often packaged with mid-tempo songs). Unlike Talib Kweli, I’m convinced that J. Cole’s fans (I’m talking about the sort who place him amongst Notorious B.I.G. and 2Pac on “top 5 rappers of all time” lists on YouTube comments of J. Cole songs) don’t really know how to distinguish between what’s good and what’s bad music. Case in point is Born Sinner moving 750,000 units in the US alone.
To get more specific, Born Sinner kind of sucks, and it doesn’t just suck in the grand scheme of things that is the hip-hop universe of 2013 where it can be compared to Yeezus (because J. Cole wanted it to be compared to Yeezus), it sucks compared to – get this – the other things that J. Cole had released in 2013: the two Truly Yours EPs and the third one that was added as a bonus CD to Born Sinner. If we take the best cuts from these three EPs, and then add few songs from Born Sinner (namely “LAnd of the Snakes,” “Power Trip” and “Let Nas Down”), we could make the best album in J. Cole’s discography.
Between the two official EPs, Truly Yours is the worse one: there are three choice cuts here (as opposed to Truly Yours 2’s six), and Truly Yours 2, thanks to its bangers (“Chris Tucker”; “Cousins”), offered a bit more diversity (a cure for melodrama and monotony). How much you enjoy “Can I Holla At Ya” and “Stay” depend on how much you prefer them over their source material, and I don’t think either of them are better than Lauryn Hill’s “To Zion” or Nas’s “Stay” (from Life is Good). This is in contrast to Truly Yours 2’s “Cole Summer”, which sampled Lauryn Hill’s “Nothing Even Matters” but sported some of J. Cole’s most captivating verses. True, the aforementioned “LAnd of the Snakes”, which rode OutKast’s “Da Art of Storytellin’ Part 1” is assuredly not better than OutKast’s original (though at least J. Cole never descends into “Her name was Suzy Skrew – cause she screwed a lot”-type stupidity), but I appreciated Cole trying to do something different (including adding to and deconstructing the beat).
In fact, I’m mostly giving this one an B+ because “Rise Above,” which is also the shortest song in the package: I mostly keep “Crunch Time” and “Tears for ODB” around for their beats (a bass thump and a piano line, respectively). “Rise Above” is two verses telling two different stories about two different women (well, Cole tries to sell it as the same woman, but it’s clearly two different stories – nice try, Cole), with a hook that’s a sample of Dirty Projectors’ “Rise Above.” The first verse is one of Cole’s betters: “She text, he don’t text back / When she see him she be tryna sex, he don’t sex back / His heart be on jet black / She call, he don’t call back, all he says is ‘fall back’”, and later, “Cause she just got a call from her homegirl Rhonda / Who said he been creepin’, he been fuckin’ with Yolanda / “Yolanda?” “Yeah girl, Yolanda” / “Told you he ain’t shit but you ain’t listen, I was tryna” / Click – “hmm,” hung up that phone and hopped right up in that Honda.” Check out the consonance in that italicized line.
The second verse also offers some moments: “But she act like she don’t care – what father? He ain’t here” and the verse’s climax. Occasionally, Cole dips into his stupidity (“Then told her daughter ‘buckle up” – pause – “‘Yeah, that’s for safety'”, and, “An ass like that, how the fuck [her 7th grade students] supposed to pay attention” – pause – “I’m fucking with you“), but it’s easy to overlook when the package is this good; hearing the high-pitched cries of “Riiiiiiiiise above / Rise above” between the stories actually gives hope despite how hopeless both seem. Some synth flickers in the second half only adds to the loveliness.