In one way Born Sinner is a strikingly solitary venture – J.Cole is involved in the production of all but two tracks, and only hosts one guest rapper (Kendrick Lamar, because of course). In another, the fingerprints of other artists are all over it. Twice he directly samples other iconic tracks (A Tribe Called Quest on Forbidden Fruit tops the Outkast bite on Land Of The Snakes). A whole track is about his disappointment that Nas hated his record.
That’s the half that shows J.Cole is a self-conscious fan (and student) of his craft. It’s also (apart from Let Nas Down) the half that tells you the least about him. Far more interesting is his look at the culture. Canny use of sermons and stand up between songs places his work (as good hip hop often is) somewhere between the two – although, BS is a touch light on stand up – and at its best the album offers a clear-eyed look at how an obsession with largesse and being ‘hard’ affects relationships and self-perception.
On the sparkling Chaining Day, a self-loathing take on constant trips to the jewellery store, he admits, ‘I need you to love me’. When he stops caring what Nas thinks and drops a masterpiece, people surely will.
Rating: 3 & 1/2 stars
_ CHARLIE LEWIS