Remember "Born Sinner"?

A turbulent mix of depravity, braggadocio and contradiction, Born Sinner has become the forgotten album in J. Cole's discography.

Remember "Born Sinner"?
Illustration by Annalee Rigdon for Super Empty © 2018

When’s the last time you heard someone talk about J. Cole’s Born Sinner? Do you remember?

This isn’t me throwing shade. It’s just that somehow, Cole’s sophomore major label effort has undoubtedly become the red-headed stepchild of the rapper’s discography. Think about it:

Friday Night Lights: Classic, should’ve went triple.
Cole World: The Sideline Story: Daggum label shenanigans.
2014 Forest Hills Drive: Double platinum with no features.
4 Your Eyez Only: Cool, but it wasn’t 2014 Forest Hills Drive.
Born Sinner: Oh riiiiiiight. Born Sinner. Huh.

As Cole has more recently settled into rapping about life in Fayetteville over the same style of beats he’s always made, his troubled second album has largely been passed over. Born Sinner was him on his “I made it and now I’m going to live in Los Angeles” shit, using beats that were just a couple steps away from the standard piano chord, drums, and sample formula, rapping about his newfound vices.

More than that, Born Sinner was the  album where my fandom with Cole began to fray. I spun the hell out of the mixtapes, memorized every damn bar on that “Looking For Trouble” verse, and hell, I even sorta kinda liked Sideline Story. And at first, I loved Born Sinner too. I remember using the Android phone I had at the time to hack into the “listening party” he was holding as promo. But once I started to dig into what he was saying, I went from liking the album, to disliking the album, to disliking J. Cole as a person.

The album’s opener, “Villuminati,” starts out with the standard brags, but quickly falls apart when J. Cole raps:

“Fake n****s get sprayed up/
My verbal AKs slay f*****s,
And I don't mean no disrespect whenever I say f*****,
Okay, f*****?/
Don't be so sensitive,
If you want to get fucked in the ass,
That's between you and whoever else's dick it is/
Pause, maybe that line was too far,
Just a little joke to show how homophobic you are"

I’m sorry, what?

At the time, J. Cole defended this line in a response to  The Huffington Post, saying “There will soon come a day when people in general, and rap artists specifically, are going to have to answer for their past usage of the word ‘f*****,’ much like the grandfathers who are ashamed that they used the word ‘n****r’ as kids. At a time when public acceptance of gay rights is soaring (rightfully), hip-hop culture and general are still battling with homophobia (not excluding myself). Rather than run from it I chose to attack it playfully. Those lyrics are meant to make everyone uncomfortable for the sake of this very conversation."

Nearly five years later, those bars and his reasoning still make no sense. His attempt at attacking homophobia frankly felt quite the opposite, almost as if he was condoning using slurs and gay jokes because, hey, everyone does it.

This happens a lot on the album — Cole doesn’t shy away from showing the grime on his soul, often to an uncomfortable degree. Take for instance, this segment of “Trouble":

“First the text, then the draws, see first is sex,
Then it's calls, cause the bird's obsessed/
Want flowers, cards, and the purses next,
Nah, bitch can't get a dollar,
Cole on Twitter, bitch can't get a follow/
Can get a nut, heard "Can't Get Enough,"
Now she fuck a n**** thinking that she may have hit the lotto”

This is clearly a misogynistic sequence, but compared to everything else we hear in hip-hop, it really doesn’t raise any eyebrows. It’s just your standard “hoes will be hoes” talk. But a few songs later, he says:

“Love yourself, girl, or nobody will,
Though you a woman I don't know how you deal,
With all the pressure to look impressive and go out in heels,
I feel for you/ killin' yourself to find a man that'll kill for you”

Jermaine… is it “Oochie Wally Wally” or is it “One Mic”? Is it “Black Girl Lost” or shorty owe you for ice?

This twisted dichotomy is a constant throughout the album. On some songs, he’s bragging about his hoes, on others, he’s stressed about his relationship problems with his long-term girlfriend. Take “She Knows,” for example:

“Damned if I do,
Damned if I don't/
I'm passing up on bad hoes,
Trying to be the man that she want, that she want/
What she want from a n****?
To put a ring on it/
Got a bitch on my dick right now,
And she just want to sing on it”

Listening to the way he talks about women on this album made me feel dirty then, and still does today. I hate the person who’s saying these things on record. And frankly, maybe that’s the point. We know that J. Cole at this time is supremely unhappy with himself and he’s treating the album as a confessional. I don’t like what he’s saying. I’d like to think Cole doesn’t either.

On the other hand, Born Sinner features my favorite money raps ever. Throughout the project, Cole is very much your standard post-college millennial (Roc Nation deal notwithstanding). He’s got a little money and success, but he’s realizing that the money he’s making ain’t shit in the long run. The “Mo Money” interlude perfectly encapsulates the concept:

“Mo’ money, blow money, show money,
Party money, side hoe money, dope money/
New clothes money from shit that I wrote money,
So much money, I don't know who stole from me/
Hard to keep track, I'm used to having no money,
Still broke compared to n****s with old money/
I mean the type of n****s that laugh at Hov money,
Billionaires, with petroleum and coal money/
Probably kill theyselves if they had Cole money…”

This theme of being rich but not wealthy, thriving but near-broke, is prevalent throughout Born Sinner. Like many of us, J. Cole grew up idolizing these wealthy rappers and the lives they lived. Cole got it for himself, and instead of embracing his new life, just got humbled by the bigger fish in the world: the media moguls, the energy magnates, the guys who come from generations of compounding wealth.

This all comes to a head on “Chaining Day," where Cole comes to grips with the hypocrisy of putting diamonds on the face of a man who preached charity. He recognizes that these chains, which are a symbol of status amongst his peers, are meaningless to the old money guys who he can’t help but compare himself to. “Chaining Day” is a moment of clarity on an album of Cole wrestling with his vices in a cloud of darkness.

The clear highlight of the album is “Let Nas Down.” Similar to his feelings of disillusionment when he starts getting money only to feel that he’s still not making it, Cole finally gets to meet his childhood hero, Nasir Jones, only to end up disappointing him with radio single “Work Out” (which, compared to a lot of radio singles, wasn’t that bad). J. Cole, with a particularly pointed two bars, called out this hypocrisy:

“I mean, you made "You Owe Me,"
Dog, I thought that you could relate”


The funny thing is, despite all of my misgivings over the content, I think Born Sinner is J. Cole’s best project.

It’s the only project he’s ever put out where I felt like he was stepping out of his beat-making comfort zone. “Villuminati,” in particular, harkened back to classic Timbaland. “Power Trip” is way hazier than anything else he’s produced.

There aren’t any bad songs. There are songs I’m uncomfortable with due to subject matter, but they aren’t bad. “Power Trip” and “Crooked Smile” are his best singles to date. Most importantly, this is his most vulnerable and honest project.

Born Sinner is a tough listen: the title itself warns of a dark ride, but this is also an album jam-packed with emotion. It’s a shame that it’s been overlooked in comparison to lighter fare, but I’m still going to listen to it in future years, as I grapple with my own insecurities and flaws.

Jimmy Branley is a recovering rap blogger who lives and works in Durham, NC.

Annalee Rigdon is a designer and multidisciplinary creative based in Carrboro, NC.