The other day, my good friend Adam Friedman posted a lengthy review on his Facebook of J. Cole’s sophomore album Born Sinner (In stores Tuesday, June 18th). As a former blogger himself (RIP FreshRespect.Blogspot.com), and a passionate J. Cole fan, as soon as I read his review I knew need to give him this outlet to share his thoughts on the rising Roc Nation superstar. Below you will find Adam’s story on how he witnessed a young J. Cole perform in 2009 to the success he has seen him achieve in 2013. Hope you enjoy.
By Adam Friedman
On a cold, wet Wednesday night in 2009, a buddy of mine (the only one I could convince) and I took a drive up 81N to the Schine Student Center of Syracuse University. We had class pretty early the next morning, but the chance to see a young and budding Wale was too tempting. We rolled up in more than one way, just as some clowns from Ithaca College would be expected too.
The venue was small, dark, and literally had no stage. We stood right in front of the floor level microphone surrounded by unplugged instruments, completely oblivious to what we were in for. Some time passed, but the dim-lit student center was still far from full.
“We would like to welcome Roc Nation’s first signed artist. This is his first show as a member of Roc Nation so show him some love, ladies and gentlemen: J. Cole.” The place stayed pretty quiet as a six-foot-three St. John’s alum took a nervous walk toward the mic…
Hip hop is still a relatively young genre that over the last decade has been destroyed from the inside-out due to the average consumers need for instant gratification. Due to the invention of the iPod and the dreaded playlist, a cohesive project is no longer desired, regardless of the genre. The truth is, musicians as a whole have had no choice but to succumb to the lazy strategy of making hits over substance to stay relevant over recent years. Internet blogs (oops) and the iTunes Store have helped solidify the platform that the average listener uses as a crutch, looking for the new hit; the song that everyone is going to want to hear, as opposed to appreciating the full sound, the common theme, the cohesive project of the artist. Some of the greatest rappers of all time wouldn’t even stand a chance in today’s market.
J. Cole’s second album “Born Sinner” is a self-loathing reflection on his career thus-far, covering the mistakes and wrongdoings that he has committed due to the temptations within the industry, as well as the journey leading to it: women, money, and fame. The album is similar to a confessional at church for the sins that Cole is ultimately expected to make, as the title of the album indicates.
Villuminati is quite the introduction, not like we expected anything less. The combination of a Biggie sample and the hook “sometimes I brag like Hov” is a clear indication that Cole is ready to be compared to the best. How do you define greatness? Comparison to the best to ever do it. “Allow me to reintroduce myself, my name is Cole.”
The next five songs (with the exception of the Mo Money Interlude) highlight the tempting lifestyle that comes with the fame, focusing primarily on women. Each song is very different from the other, but the message is clear, women are always on Cole’s mind, and Cole loves him some pussy. In LAnd of the Snakes, he starts getting used to L.A., enjoying the simple pleasures of the beautiful women around him, especially the “Sunday’s with a cherry on-top.” He falls in love on the lead single Power Trip, as shown in the music video featuring Miguel. Cole starts to open his eyes with the help of some liquor on Trouble, “liquor all in my breath, bitches all in my sight.” He is fully aware of the predictability of the women he can bring home each and every night, and clearly, they are all trouble. Runaway is a self-reflection on his past relationships and how he continues to runaway from the commitment and consequences that they may entail. “How the fuck did my life become a damn love song?” is a confession that can be guided back to the lyrics of Power Trip and how easily one can fall in love. The bottom line is, you have to be careful about what you say and do around females, especially in his position as a rapper. Being famous makes nothing easier, as much as the average person may envy the celebrity lifestyle. Cole admits his mistakes to us and asks for forgiveness by explaining the inter-workings of his mind, most importantly as to why he committed these sins, whether it is cheating or sleeping around, and how they are basically inevitable in some situations.
The next phase of the album actually began after Power Trip with the Mo Money Interlude in which Cole has his first experience with some substantial capital gain. Life is good (so it seems), as he goes down the line on different ways different people spend their money. The focus on the temptation of money continues with Rich Niggaz, the song that sounds closest to Pre-RocNation Cole. This track centers around the uneven distribution of wealth within the industry. He uses examples of his life before fame; a fatherless kid with a hardworking mother, a drug user who still did everything she could to keep the family stable, to show how easy it is for corporations to sell you your dreams and get you a ticket out of poverty. Little do you know, you’re stepping into a different kind of struggle, although one is much worse than the other. The song focuses on the forgotten evil surrounding money, and where you put a price on selling out. “There go you, selling me dreams and, telling me things you knew, said, you got what I want, I got what you need, how much for your soul…”
Where’s Jermaine and Forbidden Fruit are the climax of the album, the indication that Jermaine has woken up and is stronger than the temptations that have arose. The gospel choir is presumably a remembrance of Fayetteville, a wake up call if you will. Forbidden Fruit is a clear play off of the story of Adam and Eve, but the message of the song lies in the shared bridge of Cole and Kendrick. “Bitches come and go (you know that), money come and go (you know that), love come and go (don’t shit last)” is a simplification of Cole’s past struggles over the course of the album. Men and women both cheat, money is spent regardless, and love is lost. Nothing lasts forever. This realization is what makes Forbidden Fruit a celebration for Cole overcoming his temptations over the course of his career, most notably with women and money. It’s also dope that he has the voice of Kendrick Lamar to help guide him.
Next up is Chaining Day, a much less dramatic song about the temptation for material things, most importantly the jesus piece, a common symbol within post 90’s hip hop culture. It’s his money and he’s going to do what he wants with it, what’s important is that it keeps coming. The song ends with “ok I lied,” the same line that the next track, Ain’t That Some Shit begins with. This next track is Cole’s bragging moment. As dark as the first half of the album was, you know Cole wasn’t going to leave us without going off on some bars about the good in his life. He now has control over his relationships, he’s traveling the world, and he’s repping his name, home, and family in the best way that he can.
The positive message behind Crooked Smile matched with the catchy hook sung by TLC will guarantee regular radio rotation all summer long. What is amazing is the ability to squeeze in a hit without making it stand out. This is what Cole will be remembered for over the course of his long career. The song is about not changing who you are for anybody, most notably his crooked smile and how far he has gotten with it. Why change now?
After the release of his debut album “Sideline Story,” it was clear that songs were grabbed from various projects and pieced together to form somewhat of a marketable product. Perhaps his biggest hit to date (Workout) was criticized by one of Cole’s biggest inspirations, Nasty Nas. Let Nas Down is the perfect way for Jermaine to tell the world that he is done with the bullshit. If a song sells, it sells, but the charts aren’t the main focus anymore. “Yeah, long live the idols, may they never be your rivals, Pac was like Jesus, Nas wrote the Bible, Now what you’re bot to hear’s a tale of glory and sin, No I.D. my mentor now let the story begin.” The hook says it all: he let down the people that he is really in the game for. This song is an indicator that change has come.
The biggest difference between this project and his debut album is the clear intention for the album to be listened to from start to finish. One could say that the strongest song of the album (Forbidden Fruit) is ruined by the 90-second conclusion in which “Lil Cole” walks into the jewelry store feeling himself, rambling about the “rose gold joint” and “the platinum watch.” The mini-skit seems out of place, until the next song Chaining Day begins. “Look at me, pathetic nigga, this chain that I bought, you mix greed pain and fame this is heinous result.” The contrast is intentional, showing how easy it is for anyone to fall off track and get distracted by the fame. The only way to understand this message is by listening to the album in order, from top to bottom. IN any other order and it loses its’ meaning entirely. The album also begins and ends with the same hook sung by James Fauntleroy, “I’m a Born Sinner, but I die better than that.” The project comes full circle, as Born Sinner acts as the ending credits for the movie that was “Born Sinner.”
Cole’s second album is far from the expected sophomore slump. Born Sinner challenges the everyday hip hop fan to listen for more than a hot beat and witty punchlines. The idea is dark, sinister, and above all honest, something that mainstream rap culture has been missing for far too long. The cohesive theme revolves around temptation, whether it be chasing money, girls, or fame. We are all born sinners, but as life goes on we get better, simple as that. J. Cole’s highly anticipated second album Born Sinner hits shelves Tuesday June 18th! Support real hip hop!!