UPDATE: Due to the album leaking hours after the listening party, J. Cole decided to allow anyone to stream the album at BornSinner.com
"This is a dream come true," announced J. Cole Thursday night at New York's SVA Theater, where hundreds of journalists and fans assembled to hear his latest album Born Sinner. "When we did the listening [for his 2011 debut album] before, I didn't like it because it was in a studio or club and people were just standing around talking. While the song's playing, I don't want you talking about the song. I want you to listen to every word."
To ensure that, we have all downloaded a new app called LISNR and have each been supplied Beats by Dre headphones to engage in some paradoxical individual communal listening experience. Imagine a silent disco at a festival with more technical support and less dancing.
After a 15-minute intro primarily to explain Sinner standout "Let Nas Down" (more on that later), Born Sinner begins. Cole World: The Sideline Story, the rapper's proper 2011 debut after four years of mixtapes and guest appearances, debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, and was met with above average, if not stellar, critical acclaim. It was better and more ambitious than most rappers' debuts—Cole produced virtually every song—but sounded like what it was: an album recorded in fits and starts, with individual songs triumphing over thematic consistency.
"This album is about going through hell to make it to heaven," Cole says before last night's listening. He's not kidding. As the title suggests, Born Sinner establishes its own theme quickly: nearly every song finds Cole tortured and conflicted; a walking dichotomy of temptation and redemption. "Childhood fantasy of wife and kids at home," rhymes Cole on "Runaway." "But there's a lot of actresses I'd like to bone." Sinner is filled with evil women, forbidden fruits and messages unheeded. It could double as a metaphor for the music industry as a whole.
Nearly every song finds J. Cole tortured and conflicted; a walking dichotomy of temptation and redemption.
Metaphors aside, though, Born Sinner is a deeply, sometimes uncomfortably, personal album. For all his talk about competing with Kanye, another conflicted rapper whose religion-referencing album is released on June 18, Cole seems to see him as more inspiration than competition. "Let Nas Down," an album highlight, cribs West's hook from 2007’s "Big Brother," detailing Cole's idolization of Nas and subsequent feelings of disappointment and defensiveness after the iconic rapper heard "Work Out," Cole's attempt to garner mainstream radio play. (The exact quote: "You the One. Why did you make that sh-t?")
Cole still infuses his most personal tracks with a religious element, as "Let Nas Down" mentions "God’s plan," "Son of the Lord on the cross" and going "to hell to resurrect [hip-hop]." Music as therapy is an overused trope, but here, the album functions as much as Cole's Sunday morning church service as entertaining listening.
Musically, it's a quantum leap from Cole World. Opening track "Villuminati" uses ominous strings and frenetic drums to set a jarring pace, though Cole's influences have expanded past his first love of mid-'90s boom-bap drums and jazz-influenced rap. The cosmic space-funk of "Runaway." The jumpy, shuffling beat of "She Knows" featuring Dirty Projectors' Amber Coffman. The gospel choir and electro-inspired warbled bass of "Trouble." The Eddie Hazel-esque electric guitar solo at the end of "Rich N-ggaz." It's as if all these sonic ideas were waiting just below the surface and Cole finally found a vehicle to let them out.
Grandiose themes and stylistic shifts aside, there's still a facet of J. Cole fan who simply wants him to rap his ass off. They will be pleased. "Rich N-ggaz" finds Cole in tongue-twisting, "play that line back" mode, while "Mo Money," Cole's take on Jay-Z's "22 2's" (with nearly every line ending in "money") will be on repeat for the cadence-minded listeners. On the flip side, prepare to hear about "Villuminati," where Cole raps, "My verbal AK slay faggots and I don't mean no disrespect/Whenever I say faggot, okay faggot? Huh, don’t be so sensitive/If you want to get f-cked in the ass/That's between you and whoever else's dick it is, pause." I'm not sure if a blurrier line between unintended homophobia and extolling of tolerance has existed.
Despite high-profile appearances by Kendrick Lamar, Miguel and TLC, Born Sinner is clearly a J. Cole album. He's had too many near-hits and almost theres for it not to be. On "Forbidden Fruit," Cole drops a line about releasing an album the same day as Kanye, locking the song in a here-and-now temporal space. But more importantly, it implies that sales are still the only thing that matters, discounting streams, YouTube views, Facebook likes and other things that define success in 2013. From a marketing aspect, it makes sense to take on the champ. But it's not necessary. Born Sinner stands as an ambitious, mature step forward for an artist whose prodigious talent has often been overshadowed by fate, bad luck and missteps. J. Cole appears to have redeemed himself. Will the public?