An improved understanding of Top 40 radio singles, a desire to provide social commentary and some natural evolution as an artist offer reasons to be excited about J. Cole's "Born Sinner" album.
In November of 2012, nearly 14 months after his debut album dropped, J. Cole took to U-Stream to announce that he had a date set for his sophomore effort, Born Sinner. In the six months since the announcement, anticipation among Cole fans has been building, and the Fayetteville, North Carolina emcee/producer has satiated fans’ appetites with two Truly Yours EPs. Meanwhile, the singles “Power Trip” and “Miss America” have set a standard of sorts for what J. Cole is delivering to the masses in terms of catering to both Top 40, terrestrial radio and his rabid fan base. But what can we casual fans expect on the rest of Born Sinner?
Blow Up: The Anatomy Of A J. Cole Single
If “Miss America” and “Power Trip” are any indication, Born Sinner should find J. Cole finally mastering the awkward dance with mainstream radio. It’s safe to assume that anyone under the tutelage of Jay-Z understands why an artist needs or wants to be courted by mainstream radio. Aside from providing another revenue stream, radio success usually allows labels to recoup some of their investment—ultimately resulting in more creative control for some artists. The initial singles from Cole World: The Sideline Story showcased an understanding of this strategy, but there were clearly some holes in the execution.
Critics and a fair amount of fans will always expect top-tier emcees to buy into a certain Golden Era Hip Hop ethos inspired by the emcees that dominated the early-to-mid ‘90s. They want intricate rhyme schemes, witty metaphors and similes and obscure samples as source material. But one of Cole World’s most commercially successful singles, “Work Out” offered none of the above. The delivery was overly simple, and the track interpolated both Paula Abdul’s 1988 single “Straight Up” while also borrowing heavily from Kanye West’s 2004 hit, “The New Workout Plan.” And while Cole has shown an affinity for sampling, he didn’t add anything particularly new to either of the works he sampled. The track essentially offered two extended choruses about twerking followed by a proposition for a one-night stand. Conversely, “Who Dat” was tepid and functioned as a single in name only. It had the requisite, repetitive chorus, which is always the sign of an olive branch being extended to Top 40 radio. And it had an anthemic beat with snares crisp enough for Cole’s delivery without being too threatening for the suburban, Clear Channel demographic.
The formula behind each effort was reflected in the commercial results. “Who Dat” disappeared from the charts after one week—barely making a cameo on Billboard magazine’s “Hot 100” chart by peaking at the number 93 spot. Meanwhile, the platinum plus success of “Work Out” almost felt like a reward for a lack of artistry. The single was nominated for a Grammy, and spent 28 weeks on the “Hot 100” chart while peaking at the number 13 spot. The source material wasn’t the problem, as the Drake-assisted “In The Morning” is proof that Cole is quite familiar with making more innovative songs about one-night stands and their consequences. “Work Out” just felt forced, but the commercial results and Cole’s reflection on “Work Out” point to him playing a larger game.
“That's how you get a song like ‘Work Out,’” J. Cole told Karmaloop TV. “I went to radio stations and seen how radio stations work...I went and learned all these things. That’s how I made a record like ‘Work Out,’ I went, ‘Okay, I can play that game. I’ll give you a song full of hooks,’ the catchy shit that I knew would work on radio. That’s me playing the game.”
By the time, “Nobody’s Perfect” hit the airwaves, J. Cole seemed to have worked out the kinks of the radio game. He borrowed Timbaland’s trademark, syncopated bass drums for a Missy Elliott cameo. True to form, Missy reminded listeners why she and Timbaland revolutionized radio with a genre blending style that’s still being copied today by the likes of Ciara and Lady Gaga—but that’s another topic for another day. Missy essentially runs circles around J. Cole the rapper during her limited time on “Nobody’s Perfect.” But as a producer, Cole had the foresight to find a collaborator that was at ease giving radio programmers the catchy, sing-song hooks they crave. That allowed him to stay in his lane and avoid Auto-tune and Paula Abdul—two things that most rappers (yes, this means you too, Future) should stay far away from. And his Timbaland-inspired production put Missy in her comfort zone. The duration of the song found J. Cole hitting his go-to topics of college, sexual escapades, basketball and his ascension in the Rap ranks, but his brief observation of, “They killin’ niggas for Jays / That’s death over designer,” hinted at the desire to touch on more compelling subject matter.
Back To The Topic: J. Cole’s Sophomore Growth
When judged against the “Who Dat” and “Work Out,” both “Miss America” and “Power Trip” display the type of growth one hopes to see from an artist on their sophomore effort. Granted, you can make a strong argument that The Come Up, The Warm Up, Friday Night Lights and Cole’s two free Truly Yours EPs carried album-worthy material. As such, he’s put out the rough equivalent of five albums worth of material in six years. Even so, despite being a blatant reach for radio spins “Power Trip” feels more organic as a single; it finds J. Cole in familiar territory. It’s both self-referential (the female subject of the mixtape cut “Dreams” returns) and self-deprecating, with Cole running through an inner-monologue questioning the origins of his “Captain Save-A-Hoe” tendencies. Again, he’s at least fictionally mining the subject of returning to Fayetteville.
“Power Trip” has a double meaning both as the literal gratification one gets from lording authority over others, and it refers to the “trip” a currently upward mobile Cole takes back to his hometown to visit the woman (real or imagined) serving as the subject of the song. It’s not Ralph Ellison, but certainly deeper than the drivel served up on “Work Out.” So far “Power Trip” has already cracked the Top 20 during a 13-week (and counting) stay on the charts. Win-win.
“The most exciting part about that song [‘Power Trip’] and the reason why we went with it is that it sounds like nothing that's out,” J. Cole told MTV back in February. “Absolutely you couldn’t point to any song on the radio and be like, ‘Oh, this sounds like that’…everything from the beat to the way that I’m flowing, you’ve never really heard me so sleepy. I really did them verses in my crib and just loved the way they felt.”
This is a good time to point out that predicting what a rapper will do on any given project can sometimes be an exercise in futility. Raise your hand if you correctly predicted Nas shitting on a few albums worth of goodwill in 1999 by opting for a duet with Ginuwine (“Owe Me Back”) and a rhyme cadence inspired by “Carol Of The Bells” (“Shoot ‘Em Up”) on Nastradamus. But this isn’t about “God’s Son.” As it relates to one Jermaine Lamarr Cole, we have both the singles and some brief commentary from the artist himself to explain the direction of an upcoming project. The fact that there has been a six-month build up to this album speaks to Hip Hop’s changing landscape and the increased importance social media has in interacting with fans. But, with J. Cole, there were also other changes happening as he began work on his second album.
“We have like a responsibility and a certain power that comes with making the music and playing the music,” Cole told Billboard magaine at the 2013 American Music Awards. “And that comes with a responsibility to keep things fresh and not to fall into the mode of what’s traditional. I have singles that fall into that, but if I can use my power in some kind of way I’m gonna try to use it to shift culture just a little bit. And to me ‘Miss America’ shifts things a little bit, it changes the conversation it takes it in a more aggressive direction—more raw, more social commentary. Any type of commentary is good compared to what a normal single is these days. That’s my aim is to shift culture slightly, change the conversation...nobody expects that for your first single.”
The self-proclaimed “Young Simba” was always introspective. His references to Coretta Scott and Martin Luther King Jr. on “Sideline Story” as well as poignant commentary on abortion via “Lost Ones” showed potential. But this idea of social responsibility and—dare we say, consciousness—purposely breaks from the norm and represents an ideological shift. It’s important to note that Cole isn’t going full on Public Enemy here, and he recognizes his limitations. It’s almost as if he’s emphasizing the phrases “slightly” and “a little bit.” And this mild shift is occurring even as he’s still catering to mainstream radio (and most likely his label’s wishes) with “Power Trip.” That said, “Miss America” is new territory in that the incorporation of President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural speech, a possible shot at Mase and some Danilo Blandon/“Freeway” Ricky Ross-fueled references (“Fuck the man, Uncle Sam I won't sell your crack”) about how and why cocaine makes its way to poor ghetto neighborhoods are all calculated moves. Those lines speak to Cole’s aforementioned desire to “change the conversation.” And when he inevitably heads out on the Born Sinner press junket, he’ll have to answer some questions that hopefully add something to that conversation.
Grown Simba: J. Cole’s Friendly Rivalry With Kanye West
Maybe the bigger indication of how J. Cole views himself on his sophomore set comes from the project’s new release date of June 18. In another conversation with Billboard, Cole revealed that he purposely moved up his release date to directly compete with another Jay-Z pupil.
“I’m not going to sit [here]...I worked too hard to come a week later after Kanye West drops an amazing album,” Cole said. “It’d be like, ‘Oh and J.Cole dropped too, a week later.’ Nah. I’m going to go see him on that date. He’s the greatest. So it’s like, I’m a competitor by nature so it was instant, it wasn’t even a thought…at the same time, let's not forget this is Kanye West. He bats 100, 1,000, whatever the perfect is. His track record is flawless. I’m only expecting an incredible album from him.”
Perhaps more than any other point in his career, J. Cole is displaying they type of dichotomy and healthy contradiction that can at least lay the foundation for a great work of art. On one hand, he has released at least three (five if we’re being generous) albums worth of material in both retail and free form. His previous accomplishments lead him to believe he can stand toe to toe with Kanye West without taking an L like 50 Cent did in 2007 when Fif decided to square off in a first week sales battle with West. Yet, on the other hand, he still very much benefits from semi-autobiographical, high-school, varsity basketball player mythology that began on The Come Up. Despite being nearly 30-years-old, he still refers to himself in a youthful fashion on “Miss America,” rhyming the following:
“For my chain and my piece I should’ve won Nobel / Ill, boy you cold nigga, yeah I know nigga / Only young nigga do it better than the old niggas…”
But hey, his mentor, Jay-Z was damn near 40 and calling himself “Young Hov” so it’s all relative. Age and perception notwithstanding, Cole isn’t above taking some advice from his elders. After reportedly also being disappointed with “Work Out,” rumor has it that Nas chastised Cole, and the subject of disappointing a hero—one who made is own series of missteps, including “Owe Me Back”—finds its way onto Born Sinner. Add in a feature from TLC members Chilli and T-Boz, and you have the makings of an innovative project that can appeal to radio without compromising. Through an intensely loyal connection with his fans (both rabid and casual) and a calculated decision to balance his burgeoning social commentary agenda with the commercial success radio offers, J. Cole is priming himself for what could be the most important phase of his career. Needless to say, June 18 should prove very interesting.
Omar Burgess is a Long Beach, California native who has contributed to various magazines, newspapers and has been an editor at HipHopDX since 2008. Follow him on Twitter @OmarBurgess.