J. Cole has always been an artist people either love or love to hate. Either way, he’s an artist that everybody brings up at some point when discussing Hip-Hop among friends or on an online community. While his 2011 debut album was great, he did end up receiving a lot of backlash from fans and there were even rumors of Cole getting dropped from Roc Nation for various reasons. With all that behind him in 2013, Jermaine hopes to make his best body of work yet and hopefully outsell Kanye West’s Yeezus album, which was also released today (June 18th). Did J. Cole progress any? Check out our track-by-track analysis below and then our final thoughts/summary below that.
The opening track is always a mood-setter for LPs and Villuminati definitely does that. The track opens with a smooth choir introducing you to Born Sinner and the melodic choir continues over to the hook with a dope Notorious B.I.G. sample. The hook essentially consists of Cole comparing himself to Jay-Z, rapping “Sometimes I brag like Hov” and of coarse samples Biggie’s Juicy record. The final verse is potentially how the title came about; Cole speaks on the illuminati and says “This next three bars is dedicated to the retards/Keep on asking me about the Illuminati/Is you stupid nigga?” Overall, this is a very dope intro to an album – perhaps one of my favorites in the past couple years. The production also has a lot to do with how well this track sounds.
2. Kerney Sermon (Skit) / 3. LAnd Of The Snakes
After a quick skit of a pastor giving a sermon, Cole transitions into LAnd Of The Snakes. This track opens up with the Outkast-sampled hook, and Cole rapping “This the shit I used to roll down Lewis Street with” (Lewis St. is in Cole’s hometown of Fayetteville, NC). Throughout the first two verses, he raps about his younger days when he used to have to share a room with his brother and how he couldn’t bring girls into his room. After wanting to move out for a while, he finally did it and moved out of Fayetteville to pursue his rap career in New York. The second verse has a line that says “She said you bout to miss church, while she riding me,” which goes along with the theme of the album, Sinner vs. Saint. The beat then slows down for the final verse, which is where Cole explains the moral of this record. Cole explains how one day he ran into a female he went to college with, hit on the first night, and never called back. He stresses his regret and now knows how bad she was hurt from that night. This leads me to believe the whole track was/is referencing Cole as a snake. Very deep record with a dope beat.
4. Power Trip (Feat. Miguel)
Here is a familiar track, Cole’s Miguel-featured lead single Power Trip. We’ve probably all heard this record plenty of times by now but it sounds as good as ever when listening to the album in order. This track picks up where LAnd Of The Snakes left off and Cole looks back on when he lived in New York and paying a crazy amount of money for rent. He says the money was well spent because it led to his record deal: “Paying seventeen-hundred for the rent, money well spent.” The second half of the hook (after Miguel) refers back to when he didn’t get any sleep because he was thinking of a female all night. He was drinking and writing love songs to try and ease the pain. I should also include that Miguel is absolutely perfect for the hook.
5. Mo Money (Interlude)
Although this is dubbed an interlude, this is one of the most quotable and outstanding songs on the album, regardless of how short it is (1:18). The eerie, video game-like beat is perfect for this song. Every line ends with the word “money” and provides a representation of the world and how money flows, starting with rich white people at the top of the money food chain. My personal favorite line of this song is, “Still broke compared to niggas with old money/I mean the type of niggas that laugh at Hov money/Billionaires with Petroleum and coal money/Probably kill themselves if they had Cole money.” Great interlude!
After Cole’s opening 4 lines, Trouble bursts into a smooth gospel chorus, making you feel like you’re in church on a Sunday morning. It is definitely not made for church, though; the song is actually rather dark. It opens up with the hook, which is Cole portraying a story of when he was drunk and saw some girls he wanted to get with but other guys were trying to start trouble with him; “I said liquor all in my breath, bitches all in my sight/I said real niggas trying to fuck, fuck niggas wanna fight.” The song is essentially all about getting with females in numerous different ways, including going back to school to get laid. The production is awesome and the lyrics are on point.
Runaway opens up with a stand-up comedy skit from Mike Epps and leads into a smooth, melodic beat. In this track, Cole explains his past relationship troubles and how he’s trying his hardest but it isn’t quite good enough. Cole then switches things up, proceeding to rap about how he wants to pursue his dreams and doesn’t want any drama with a female. I also love how Cole touches on the theme of the album in verse 2 where he asks: Is God really a murderer, a whore, and a cheater? This is a very deep song and it’s one where you have to really listen to the lyrics to understand exactly what Cole is portraying with his clever wordplay. Again, the beat is incredible.
8. “She Knows” (Feat. Amber Coffman)
For track number 8, Cole produces another miraculous beat with perfectly-placed vocals from Amber Coffman of the Dirty Projectors. Jermaine raps about his commitment struggles with females and is almost a continuation from the previous two tracks on the album. With the lyrics “You know I got a girl back home/You got a man what you want?” Cole feels like he’s gonna be in trouble (damned) either way the cookie crumbles. Cole also references the American Dream as getting a “piece of that apple pie.” There are a lot of clever lines in this record and I thoroughly enjoy it every time it plays.
9. Rich Niggaz
Here we go. After multiple tracks in a row about relationship and female problems, Cole switches things up for the better. In Rich Niggaz, Cole explains how he came up from nothing and how he despises people who are rich. He especially stresses the hate for people who were born rich and didn’t have to struggle or work hard for the money. In the second verse, Jermaine goes at rappers who always rap about money and after that says, “Homie, don’t quit now/hear my shit and tried to switch now.” The lyrics are very deep and most notably, the lyrics are very relatable. This beat is one of my favorites from the album and shows Cole’s diversity in the production game. This was my favorite track after the first listen and now, after 10+ full listens of the album, I feel the same way.
10. Where’s Jermaine? (Skit) – 11. Forbidden Fruit (Feat. Kendrick Lamar)
After a quick skit of a choir rehearsal, Cole moves on to a fan-favorite from the album – the Kendrick Lamar-featured Forbidden Fruit. The smooth production samples A Tribe Called Quest’s Eclectic Relaxation but the drums and vocals add a whole new vibe to it. While it’s disappointing that Kendrick didn’t have a verse on this track, his distinct sound was perfect for the hook. The moral of this track comes straight from the hook: “Bitches come and go/Money come and go/Love come and go/Don’t shit last.” Nothing lasts forever, so never take anything for granted.
12. Chaining Day
Track 12, Chaining Day, has a very interesting beat and is solely about a jesus piece, hence the album title. Cole says, “My last piece I swear, I even iced out Jesus hair,” revealing he buys this expensive jewelry and still doesn’t even own a home – “Truth be told I ain’t even bought a crib yet.” Since the lyrics aren’t completely relatable and the hook is mediocre at best, this track is very underwhelming compared to the previous 11 tracks.
13. Ain’t That Some Shit (Interlude)
Here is the second interlude from the LP and this one is also extremely impressive for an interlude. Ain’t That Some Shit feels like a breathe of fresh air for Cole and listeners, since it’s upbeat and doesn’t really portray a deep story – it actually sounds like a freestyle. Cole comes out fierce and loves to brag (not a bad thing), “For no Benz and Range and my mattresses/ For fuckin’ these bad little actresses/I’m bad as shit……Ain’t that some shit/Well paid for this rap and shit.” I wish this one was made into a full-length track.
14. Crooked Smile (Feat. TLC)
When the rumors of J. Cole collaborating with TLC began floating around the net last month, fans went ballistic – and they likely weren’t disappointed with the final product! This is just an uplifting and happy song that encourages the listeners to always have self-confidence. Some of the strongest lyrics from this song are: “No need to fix what God already put his paint brush on” & “Cause what’s real is something that the eyes can’t see/That the hands can’t touch, that them broads can’t be, and that’s you.” The lyrics are very true and could actually help people gain self-confidence on a depressing day. With TLC’s T-Boz and Chili delivering one of the best hooks I’ve heard in recent years, this has potential to be Cole’s biggest hit to date.
15. Let Nas Down
Cole is a big fan of legendary rapper Nas and here is his story on how he fell short of pleasing him with his hit single Work Out a few years back. The jazz-tastic production adds so much feeling to J. Cole’s angry yet confident lyrics. Cole explains how he’s getting to the point where he has to compete with the greats, saying “Long live the idols, may they never be your rivals/Pac was like Jesus, Nas wrote the Bible.” Cole calls this his favorite record on Born Sinner and it’s definitely in my top 3.
16. Born Sinner (Feat. James Fauntleroy)
Born Sinner concludes with the title track, featuring James Fauntleroy of the Cocaine 80s. The record sums up everything the album is about and brings an uplifting feel to it, mainly due to the Fauntleroy hook and some smooth, bright production. Cole explains how the music business could be considered a cliff because of his past troubles with mainstream slander (as referred to in Let Nas Down), “Yeah, this music shit is a gift/But God help us make it cause this music biz is a cliff/I got a life in my grip, she holding tight to my wrist/She screaming Don’t let me slip.” Not a bad outro but it could’ve been a lot better.
So, let’s answer the question we asked earlier: did J. Cole progress any? – the answer is yes. Cole most definitely progressed both as a lyricist and even more impressively as a producer. The lyrics on this album are top-notch and every single song paints an image in your head and it’s like you know Cole and his stories on a personal level. The production is also top-notch and adds so much feeling to the lyrics being spit by Cole. The fact that I did not skip any song on this album is saying something – impressive, very impressive! I can tell you right now that I haven’t felt so strongly about an album since Drake’s Take Care. Album of the year so far. Agree?