Tuesday, January 28, 2014

"Born Sinner," by J. Cole (HHES Review)

Here's my review of the J. Cole album "Born Sinner," using the Hip Hop Evaluation System (HHES).

"Villuminati" is a great start. Interesting lyrics, good beat, skillfull flow, good references, bold statements.

"Kerney Sermon (Skit)" is a nice bit of ironic storytelling that illuminates themes on the rest of the album.

"LAnd of the Snakes" is a very interesting track. As with track one, the beat and flow are top-notch. At first glance, the song appears to be a typical "getting laid" track, but the song is much more introspective and uncertain in its moral point of view than most such songs. J. Cole doesn't necessarily love everything he's done in the past, but he also doesn't necessarily trust the motives of the women who want him.

"Power Trip" is one of the standout tracks on the album, with a very entertaining beat and yet another very good flow from J. Cole. The hook leaves a little to be desired, but it's not bad: Miguel has a great voice, but he doesn't always use it well. The song works very well on two levels, in the Common "I Used to Love HER" tradition, speaking about both a woman and hip hop itself.

"Mo Money (Interlude)" is short, but sweet. Another interesting beat, with lyrics that have a great poetic structure that I love.

"Trouble" is kind of the first misstep on the album. The chorus is pretty good, but the hook is weak, the beat is too trap-y for my tastes, and the lyrics and topics are starting to get repetitive at this point.

"Runaway" is the best-produced or performed song on the album, but it has some of the best lyrics. At this point, we're getting to the major theme of the album--men and women and their complicated relationships. And this has some of the best introspection and thoughtfulness on the topic that are on the album.

"She Knows" continues the theme of the last song, a man who is getting approached by women while he's out and about while having a woman at home devoted to him. This one has the biggest earworm on the album with the "she knows" hook and has some of the best production, which is saying something on this album. They personal revalations and deep thoughts aren't as good on this track as on "Runaway," but the cultural and hip hop references are better.

"Rich Niggaz" goes back into the deeply revealing lyrics of "Runaway," but moves on to topics related to manhood and the industry. It's marred by one of the worst hooks on the album, though.

"Where’s Jermaine? (Skit)" leaves me wondering why it's included.

"Forbidden Fruit" has an interesting sample and drum beat as its underlying sound and this is probably J. Cole's best and most varied flow on the album, but it dips a little too much into a trap sound and the Kendrick Lamar hook isn't k.dot's strongest.

"Chaining Day" is where the album starts to wear down a bit, with repetitive themes, sounds, flow. It's not bad, and might work in another context, but after the previous group of songs, you're left wondering if Cole is out of ideas.

"Ain't That Some Shit (Interlude)" totally turns things back around. It's a totally different sound in every way you can think of. It's upeat, the flow is unique on this album, the theme is different, and it's the first time in a while that the listener is inspired to dance.

"Crooked Smile" and the songs that follow show that J. Cole knows how to end an album. This song is a strong empowerment anthem that you can play for anyone that thinks that rap always hates women. Cole shouts out 2 Pac in the next track, lyrically, but he gives a conceptual shout out to 2 Pac's "Keep Ya Head Up" here and it works well.

"Let Nas Down," to me, is the best track on the album. It not only is built on a great beat and sample, the story and the knowledge it shows of the rap game and its foundations is spot on. It also has some bigger philosophy that really gets across one of the best messages on the album.

"Born Sinner" is another strong track to close out the album, with a great, and unique beat, a solid hook from James Fauntleroy and lyrics that encapsulate the overall message of the album quite well.

Overall Analysis

Flow: 9. J. Cole is good. Very good. He's fast, technically skilled, and varies his flow well.

Lyrics: 9. Other than the excessive use of words that start with N and B, his lyrics are amazing, if a little repetitive as the album moves on.

Message: 8. It's hard not to note some of the contradictions in message from time to time, but for the most part, he's raising big points and nailing his take on them, which is usually a good one.

Technical: 8. He's not in the group of most technically proficient MCs in the game, but he's right below that.

Production: 8. Varied, well-done, repeatably listenable, if a little understated.

Versatility: 4. This is not a strength of Cole or this album. He's very good when he's in his area, but he doesn't wander outside of his main style much.

Collaborators: 6. There are some good collaborators on the album, but for the most part they aren't used very well and they don't add much.

History: 10. This is an album so steeped in history you're bound to learn something about hip hop just by listening.

References: 9. This is another strength of the album, Cole makes good and clever references on almost every song.

Originality: 6. It's original compared to many other current hip hop albums, but doesn't quite get to the level of a Kanye West or Childish Gambino and it repeats its ideas too much, meaning it doesn't have much in the way of internal originality.

Total Score: 77. J. Cole has produced a work to be proud of here, although it isn't loaded with tracks that will be stuck in your head or that you'll come back to over and over again. This is more an album that you'll listen to as a whole from time to time because you like his voice or style, but it falls a bit short of greatness.

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