One of the greatest testaments to the depth of quality of a hip hop album — or any album for that matter — is its durability to stand strong over the years.
We want to recognize those albums in a new monthly segment covering some of your favorite old-school rap records.
Throwback Thursday itself is a hallmark. It has intrinsic ability to evoke emotion from my days as a goofy middle school kid, to my maturation throughout high school, all the way to my final years at Miami University.
Throwback Thursday is nostalgia, and music itself can paint you shades of deja vu no other vehicle can.
And J. Cole’s 2013 opus Born Sinner is our feature for the first edition of the Rooted Rap Album Review.
The one thing I remember most about Cole’s sophomore LP was the balls in the manner he did it.
For someone of Cole’s pedigree, to essentially pull a Kanye on Kanye himself made the hype surrounding Born Sinner crescendo beyond the waves its smash hit single “Power Trip” ft. Miguel had already created.
Born Sinner was a huge album for J. Cole—both at the time and in retrospect. There was no question about it. His debut, Cole World: The Sideline Story hit certified gold but came with a set of bumps and bruises; though some argue those didn’t come by his own hand.
That argument is for another time and place, but if you take a gander back on how Roc Nation handled the marketing of The Sideline Story and even 2014’s 2014 Forest Hill Drive, the urgency for Born Sinner to be commercially successful took precedence over its critical acclaim.
Cole’s actual work, the brush strokes on the easel, were met with resistance on both sides of the fence. He had those who thought it was his best work, those who thought it was a pretty solid effort, and some that couldn’t believe how dark the album ended up being.
We would soon learn that J. Cole was fighting demons as the pressure of the recording process suffocated him, and we realized that Jermaine just wanted to be loved.
Personally, this album resonated on all levels during that time period of my life.
I mentioned earlier how music can bring shades of deja vu nothing else can, how one single song can bring you back to a physical location. And when Born Sinner dropped, I was in New York City for the first time. Ironically, J. Cole considers himself a southern rapper with a New York mind.
In fact, while I was there, J. Cole and his Dreamville Records team were holding private one-time listening parties in NYC. Fans were allowed to come and listen to the album in full prior to the official release.
I didn’t attend one of these listening parties, but I did wake up on the morning of June 7th, 2013 with a massive hangover and some staggering news.
My phone buzzed. It was a text, and as I painfully leaned over to pick it up, it registered.
“What do you think of it?”
Think of what? I ached.
“Born Sinner, man. Search Google, it’s everywhere.”
I can still tell you to this day that June 7th in New York City came with a shit ton of rain. I mean, I was probably the only person walking around Central Park that day. And if I wasn’t, I can assure you I was the only one strolling Central Park listening to “Villuminati.”
From the onset, it was clear that J. Cole was taking a new direction on his sophomore LP. Straying from his usual Intro track into the opening song, Born Sinner begins with the sounds of a backing chorus, eerie violins and the Notorious fuckin’ B.I.G.
“Born Sinner, the opposite of a winner, now I’m in the limelight cause I rhyme tight, time to get paid, blow up like the World Trade”
Ripping through “Land of the Snakes,” I couldn’t believe how ballsy it was for Cole to sample an Outkast classic like “Da Art of Storytellin’ Pt. 1” on the second song of such an important album.
I loved every second of it. Sure, it might have seemed a bit off at first but the song still hit on all levels.
The party would stop there though. From that point on it was apparent; J. Cole was questioning his worth as a human, his selfish decisions along the way, and our daily fight against our demons.
We all have them, we all fight them. J. Cole allowed them to define him on this album.
As listeners, we are always given the opportunity to hear the internal struggle of an artist from all angles, and what journeys they take.
It’s difficult for me personally to remember being a 23-year-old when Born Sinner dropped. I was going through a crazy time period in my own life; having recently been fired from my first job, interning for no pay and waiting tables on the side just to get by.
Born Sinner was exactly the album I needed at the time. Struggling, this album helped get me through some tough times and broadened my perspective to the world around me.
“I’m a born sinner, but I’ll die better than that, swear.”