Perhaps inspired by his release-date rival, Kanye West, J. Cole has learned how to make an entrance.
Last night (June 6), in a more intimate, high-tech version of the premiere of Yeezy's "New Slaves" — which was shown via projector in public spaces in 66 cities worldwide — J. Cole hosted a simultaneous, international listening party for his sophomore album, "Born Sinner," at eight venues in the U.S., Canada and Britain. At the invite-only events (in New York City, Atlanta, Houston, Chicago, L.A., London, Toronto and his hometown of Fayetteville, N.C.), lucky attendees streamed the anticipated album, out June 18 via Roc Nation/Columbia, on their smartphones and tablets via the LISNR app. The rapper-producer has kept the album extremely close to his chest, so this is the first time "Born Sinner" has been played for a wider audience.
At the NYC listening session, a few hundred fans, press and assorted VIPs packed into NYC's SVA Theater in Chelsea, where Beats by Dre headphones were distributed for the ears and cartons of fancy flavored popcorn for the stomach. With so many rappers claiming their music is "motion-picture shit," it was a nice flourish. Wifi, on the "Born Sinner" network, of course, was provided for streaming via LISNR, but not everything went smoothly. Before the listening, when LISNR reps asked if anyone was having any issues, dozens of hands set up. An amped-up kid who kept yelling out "Born Sinner Platinum" looked particularly miffed.
J. Cole stepped on stage and explained why he chose to unveil the album this way, comparing the event to the usual listening party. "When the songs are playing I don't want you talking about them. I want you listening to every word," he said. "I want everyone in their own world."
When the stream finally began, some in the crowd weren't able to get LISNR working at all. (Switching from Wifi to 4G, a non-intuitive move to be sure, worked for us). The experience lost more of its impact when the album leaked online hours after. Maybe the old-fashioned listening party isn't so bad after all.
Still, the complaints couldn't stifle the real takeaway of the night: "Born Sinner" was stellar, and a big step up from Cole's previous work. Tech problems be damned, the listening was still a unique experience with hundreds of music lovers around the world bobbing their heads to the same music at the same time. Including Cole, who sat to the side of the theater and listened along intently just like everybody else. On the screen, a mash-up of religious imagery flashed by — snakes, devils, tortured souls, angels, clouds — transitioning from red and black to bright white as the album played on. It represented the album's journey, from dark to light, from heaven to hell, as Cole himself explained at the listening event. The imagery was a nice touch, but in the end not necessary. "Born Sinner," easily the best hip-hop album of 2013 so far, stands on its own merits.
The opening track is a well-aimed warning shot. Over a backdrop of dramatic, rising strings, Notorious B.I.G. samples ("Juicy") and a live choir — a sonic theme of the album — the first words Cole utters are an adlib: "It's way darker this time." Spoiler: The rest of the album definitely lives up to that. But Cole is also more confident than ever. "Sometimes I brag like Hov," he raps, before taking a comedic shot at Trinidad James: "My pops was club-hopping back when clubbing Rick James was out and all I get is Trinidad." There's an unfortunate group of lighthearted lines that uses a homophobic slur repeatedly.
2. "Kerney Sermon (Skit)" —3. "Land of the Snakes"
After a brief skit featuring a pastor giving a sermon ("Kerney Sermon"), Cole launches into "Land of the Snakes," which samples the bittersweet, descending synths of 1998 Outkast classic "The Art of Storytelling Pt. 1." He reminisces on his humble Fayetteville upbringings, his move up north, and above all, his struggle with temptation. "I came out the womb with my dick hard," he raps. The song breaks down at the end, the synths warbling and filtering out as the drums drop to sparse percussion. It's another sign of Cole's big step up production-wise, already evident two songs in. (Cole produced every track on the album aside from the two interludes.)
4. "Power Trip" feat. Miguel
Yes, we've all heard it plenty of times by now (it's currently at No. 11 on the Hot 100), but Cole's hit single "Power Trip" still sounds as good as ever in the context of the album. And it successfully introduced many of the sonic elements that tie "Born Sinner" together: crunchy, jumpy Timbaland-inspired drums, deep, rumbling bass, and soulful melodies, often sung by Cole himself — though Miguel provides a huge assist here, of course.
5. "Mo Money (Interlude)"
Don't believe the parenthetical in the song title. This is a real song, albeit, a relatively brief one. While eerie theremin sounds intertwine, Cole raps about greenbacks, skillfully ending each line with money. It's one of the most quotable verses on the album, and will be an inevitable street favorite.
One of the darkest songs on the album, "Trouble" again features a choir, but this time Cole really has them go off. They handle the hook, break down into "oohs" and "aahs," and belt out solo riffs throughout. It's big, powerful, and another quantum leap forward for Cole's beatmaking. Lyrically, he's again addressing temptation, in a possible riff off Trinidad James' "All Gold Everything": "Liquor all on my breath, bitches all in my sight."
On the lush "Runaway," Cole talks about his relationship troubles, which, underneath the moral struggles and spiritual dichotomies hinted at by the album title, is another topic he goes back to throughout the record. He's trying to be good to his girl but isn't succeeding: "You don't wanna let her down but you're too young for the settle down." But the topics soon expand: a pervy high school coach, how rape during slavery led to his grandmother's light complexion. The drama builds musically as well, with breakbeats and subtle Rhodes chords giving way to strings, electric guitars and a bass solo.
8. "She Knows" feat. Amber Coffman
Cole once again struggles with monogamy and temptation on this standout cut. But here, as the album begins its journey toward higher ground, Cole's conscience may finally be winning out. "I'm passing up on bad hoes trying to be what she wants," he says, while a filtered-out melody from Amber Coffman of the Dirty Projectors floats above big, low piano octaves. Like on many songs on Justin Timberlake's "The 20/20 Experience" (there's that Timbaland influence again), the beat launches into a switched-up coda at the end, with the piano chords changing and Amber's singing blending with Cole's. You have to give it to J. Cole, for on almost every song, he puts in extra work to take the production beyond the usual looping rap track and transforms them into something bigger and more moving.
9. "Rich Ni--az"
Although "Born Sinner" is filled with stadium-sized beats, the album has intimate moments that shine as well. The stellar "Rich Ni--az" starts with a harp looping over the sound of running water, while Cole gives some of the most personal and relatable rhymes of the album, rapping about his mom moonlighting for money because his dad wasn't around. Cole's thoughts evolve constantly on the song: His middle finger to the titular "Rich Ni--az" turns into a tale of personal poverty and ultimately a comparison between his own bittersweet success and that of Basquiat or Kurt Cobain. In the end, it's something of a mission statement for Cole's career and his struggles throughout it: He wants success, but he doesn't want to sell his soul for it.
10. "Where's Jermaine? (Skit) — 11. "Forbidden Fruit" feat. Kendrick Lamar
After a skit featuring a choir rehearsal ("Where's Jermaine?"), Cole launches into another album highlight. "Forbidden Fruit" samples jazz organist Ronnie Foster's 1972 "Mystic Brew"—which any respectable hip-hop fan will recognize as the source material of A Tribe Called Quest's "Eclectic Relaxation" — but the drums give it a brand-new half-time bounce. Kendrick Lamar, the album's only rapper guest feature, shows up on the hook more singing than spitting. The song, a hip-hop take on Genesis, is yet another paean on the temptations of love and lust: "Me and my bitch / Took a little trip / Down to the garden / Took a little dip / Apple juice falling from her lips / Took a little sip." Can we get a remix with a Kendrick verse, please?
12. "Chaining Day"
"Chaining Day" is almost a spin-off of "Jesus Walks." Cole tackles another dichotomy, one of hip-hop's most well-known love-hate hypocrisies: the lavish Jesus pendant. "My last piece I swear, I even iced out Jesus hair," he spits, admitting he bought expensive jewelry and a car to keep up rap-game appearances but still doesn't own a house. The production is gorgeous, with a lush, soulful sample of bells and guitars reminiscent of Nas' "Memory Lane (Sittin' in Da Park)," interrupted by intermittent horn blasts.
13. "Ain't That Some Shit (Interlude)"
Like "Mo Money," this interlude stands on its own, with a banging beat that once again recalls Timbaland with chopped up, off-kilter strings and a double-time bounce. After an album full of moralizing and introspection, an amped-up Cole is in top-notch talk-smack form here: "Ain't that some shit? Well paid from this rapping shit."
14. "Crooked Smile" feat. TLC
Of all the early Kanye West influences on the album, this is probably the most blatant, and that's a good thing. The second single from the album updates "The College Dropout"'s chipmunk soul, with a sped-up vocal sample, bouncy piano chords and a choir. TLC's T-Boz and Chili drop an uplifting hook in between J. Cole's self-effacingly honest bars. It's easy to see this song becoming Cole's biggest pop hit yet.
15. "Let Nas Down"
Though this song had been kept under wraps till now, it's already been widely discussed, thanks to Hot 97 personality Peter Rosenberg talking about it on the air (and getting the title wrong, to Cole's public annoyance). Fortunately, the result lives up to the hype. While a bluesy sax melody loops in the background, Cole recounts his struggles coming up with a good single for his first album, "Cole World: The Sideline Story" — a struggle that eventually produced Cole's biggest hit to date, "Work Out." But Cole says he was crushed when he found out via No I.D. that one of his idols, Nas, didn't like the song. "You made 'You Owe Me,' dog, I thought you could relate," he tells Nas. Given rap's frequent chest-thumping, it's refreshing to see Cole talking about his own musical insecurities and his unabashed fandom of another rapper.
16. "Born Sinner"
"Born Sinner" concludes with its title track, which, perhaps due to the listening party's setting, sounded like the music that plays when a film's ending credits roll. Fittingly, it summarizes the moral balancing acts and dualities that center the LP. "This music shit is a gift, but God help us make it 'cause this music biz is a cliff," Cole warns, over a backdrop of blues chords and skittering drums. It may be the worst song on the album, but only because some of the disc's previous highlights shine so bright. The track, and album, end with another old-school Kanye flourish: an acapella choir and handclaps.
Yes, nowadays Yeezy is onto the abrasive, high-art futurism of "New Slaves" and "Black Skinhead," but hearing Cole update his old trademarks so skillfully almost make you miss a Kanye that was aiming to please more than challenge.
Almost every song on "Born Sinner" is better than those two from "Yeezus" (admittedly, full-length studio versions of "New Slaves" and Black Skinhead" haven't emerged yet). It seems inevitable that Kanye will win the sales showdown come June 18, but the excellence of "Born Sinner" makes the once unlikely-seeming possibility that Cole could win the more important contest — over listeners' ears — a lot more real.