Label: Roc Nation/Columbia
J. Cole is the least-likely rapper to ever be considered "divisive," yet somehow he's managed to become so beloved by his fans and so derided by his detractors that he's now an unlikely flashpoint in a series of arguments in hip-hop's growing class war. In an era where sales stats and popularity have never seemed less in sync, and rappers can dominate the day's discussion, fill club dancefloors, and sell out shows without moving many units (hey, French Montana), Cole is a genuinely popular artist who is also able to sell albums.
First things first: No, he's not a lyrical monster on par with his idols. He is an adroit rapper, but stylistically, isn't really expanding hip-hop's pallette. But it's also difficult to see why his music would inspire such ire. He's established himself as a strong singles artist, even if it's the kind of thing he seems to have fallen into backwards. "Crooked Smile" and "Power Trip," the two singles from Born Sinner, are two of the strongest of his career. His primary talent is being relateable, writing stories that wrestle with problems that are more common, more real, for the kid who aspires to go to college and might find street rap's glorification of criminality difficult to identify with. It's a lane that Kanye opened, and Cole is running with it.
Consider "Land of the Snakes," where Cole's narrative begins with stunting about his own success before taking a sly, unexpected turn in the final verse, undercutting the Rapper Fantasy, when Cole recognizes the pain that he's caused other people. In other words: he's empathic. Even more so on "Crooked Smile," which could easily have fallen into soppy sentimentalism, but manages to pull off a subtly affirming message.
Sonically, the album has a distinct, comfort-food soul sampling feel that is subtle and layered. There are a few lyrical clunkers (his opening bars about "faggots" on "Villuminati" are especially wearying) and his most strident fans' attempts to put him in the pantheon seem, to be generous, premature. But Born Sinner is a success for a reason, and J. Cole will definitely benefit from Kanye's spurning of his more traditionalist fanbase. —David Drake