J.Cole, The Prince of Hip Hop, takes an evolutionary leap with his sophomore album Born Sinner.
I have been following J.Cole since his The Warm Up mixtape. I must admit that although I was definitely feeling it, I wasn’t sure the kid was going to actually deliver. At best I thought he would end up like so many underground greats who kill on their mix tapes but sink on their albums. It’s a common pitfall for many rappers.
J.Cole avoids this pitfall on Born Sinner . The album is meant to display J. Cole’s embracing the duality and contradictions of who is as an artist and a person during the process of his evolution.
“[The album is about] going through hell trying to make it to heaven; going through depression trying to make it to happiness” – J. Cole
Born Sinner takes a familiar theme of the saint versus the sinner and rebirth. A number of rappers have used this theme: Nas’ God’s Son, Tupac/Makaveli’s The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory, and Jay-Z’s Kingdom Come. J. Cole uses this theme to explore the paradox of good and evil from a personal perspective on the track “Crooked Smile” featuring TLC. The song deals with issues of body image and society’s standards of beauty. He uses his own decision to not fix his teeth to offer a personal introspection into the idea beauty and self-worth. A number of other tracks on the album show his thoughts on the music industry and the pressure to produce a marketable product for record labels/radio and the desire to create street credible music for the fans and lovers of Hip Hop music. That’s the surface of the album. Beneath that is another layer of thought that he offers.
J. Cole also openly illustrates his own artistic evolution. Part of that evolution is the conflicting motivations of making money and making art but also the struggle to be relevant to both the Hip Hop community and to the great rap artists who have preceded him. In this notion J. Cole fashions himself as a prince rising to the throne. The concept is an allusion to that of “The Prince” by Machiavelli. Machiavelli (whose philosophy was used by Tupac in his own reinvention as Makaveli) was a historian, politician, and philosopher who wrote the book “The Prince” to offer his philosophy on rulers, the right to rule, and how to best rule.
This allusion resonates with J. Cole’s new found place as a vetted rap star. In “The Prince,” Machiavelli states that princes come to power either by their inheritance of power or by virtue of their own talents. Those that inherit their place are challenged to maintain the established order and adapt it to the current time; while princes that have obtained their new position have to do so by earning their place through the respect of the people. It is uncertain which of these J. Cole envisions himself to be, but either would fit.
The album pays homage to many rap greats that have gone before J. Cole. He shouts everyone from Mos Def and Talib Kweli to P. Diddy’s and 50 Cent. Most specifically he bows before Biggie, Tupac, Jay-Z, and Nas (the gods of rap). The first song on the album, “Villuminati” sample’s Biggie’s “Juicy“and the title references Jay-Z’s alleged connections to the illuminati as well as Tupac’s album The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory. J. Cole comes on the track spitting,
“Sometimes I brag like Hov
Sometimes I’m real like Pac
Sometimes I focus on the flow to show the skills I got
Sometimes I focus on the dough
Think about these bills I got”
Cole even dedicated an entire song (“Let Nas Down“) to his goal of making Nas proud. The song was birthed from a harsh critique that Nas had given J. Cole regarding his radio hit “Work Out.” While the song had been accomplishment for J. Cole after a series of self described uninspired tracks and because he had discovered the formula for appealing to the radio producers, the song lacked the original edge and insight of his previous work. For that Nas stated to producer No I.D., “Yo, why the fuck that nigga make that shit? He don’t know he the one” J. Cole took the critique personally but instead of beefing with the rap god, he went harder at merging the radio appeal with the raw creativity that he’d put into his mixtapes. In this view J. Cole can be seen as inheriting the mantle from Jay-Z and Nas who both publicly and lyrically endorse him.
“So you ain’t let Nas down…
It’s just part of the game, becoming a rap king, my nigga
You ain’t let Nas down…
How that sound? Here the crown, pass it to you like nothin, nigga
You ain’t let Nas down” -Nas, “Let Nas Down (remix)“
J. Cole is setting the bar for the next generation of rappers. What he accomplishes on Born Sinner is the evolution of the rap game. The power to create stars is shifting back to the fans and the freedom and demand to produce is back in the hands of the artists. J. Cole is also setting a precedence for learning from his rap forefathers and receiving their blessings instead of simply challenging them for the throne. In the days to come rappers will have to redevelop the concept of making albums and a rap career and that concept will have to take into consideration more than just radio play and album sales (a thought I explored in a previous post The Mixtape Evolution). For the time being J. Cole is #winning. He is proving that he is The Prince of Hip Hop, heir to the throne of rap and, apparently, the gods are on his side.
I’m not sayin; I’m just sayin,
An Angry Black Man