Is J. Cole a disappointment? That question hangs over the rapper’s somber sophomore LP Born Sinner like a storm cloud. As he did on his breakthrough major-label debut The Sideline Story, Cole wrestles openly, and touchingly, with his identity and place — at one point, he confesses that Nas hated his biggest hit, “Work Out.” The Cole of Born Sinner shows none of the optimism of his “Dollar & A Dream” songs: On “Trouble,” he flounders in label expectations and creative ennui. Success, and cash, turn him forlorn (“Runaway”) and even sour (“Now I’m Cobain, with a shotgun aimed at my brain/ ‘Cause I can’t maintain no more/ that’s a bit extreme, I know/ but money can’t save your soul,” he says on “Rich N—z”.) On “Chaining Day,” he channels the Kanye West of “All Falls Down” as a triumphal rap rite turns demeaning (“Swear I heard my jeweler say, ‘Here go your chain, my n—-’”).
Born Sinner finds Cole conflicted, in other words, as usual, toward hip-hop and himself. But he cheers himself up by reminding himself of rap’s hallowed greats: In the boisterous interlude “Ain’t That Some Shit,” he ticks off 2Pac, West and label boss Jay-Z. “Villuminati,” the album’s opener, is punctuated by strings, a Notorious B.I.G. sample (“Born sinner, the opposite of a killer”) and Cole’s claim that “sometimes I brag like Hov.”On “Let Nas Down,” he fondly remembers taping the rapper’s lyrics to the wall. It’s as if, faced with rap stardom of his own, he’d rather be the fan again — a compellingly human turn for the MC once so consumed with the notion of himself as rap’s great hope that he nicknamed himself Simba.