Who: J. Cole, Beats by Dre (via Karen Civil), and LISNR
What: “Born Sinner” Listening
When: June 6
Where: SVA Theater, New York City
Deets: Two things are certain with the release of Jermaine Cole’s sophomore effort: the Roc Nation emcee wants to be heard and he wants you to know how he “Let Nas Down.” For that reason, he nixed the idea of a conventional listening party full of bottle poppin’ VIPs, and rather invited fans and influencers to an intimate session where “Born Sinner” was center stage.
After providing my Sony connect’s name at the door, my guest and I were ushered in to a foyer of hipsters, hip-hop heads, and industry cohorts, eager for an album preview like none other. Armed with Beats by Dre headphones and the newly-downloaded LISNR app, we waited—like Cole World devotees in seven other cities—for Cole’s private party to begin. Near 8:00 p.m. the Fayetteville native stormed down the aisle, (with a cup full of something other than the free seltzer and soft drinks we poured up), introducing his interactive “Born Sinner” stream—but first, he had some explaining to do.
Although his “long story short” turned into a 15-minute “Last Call” 2.0 (my “Warm Up” aficionados know what I’m talking about), it was worth it. For his sake—and ours—the storyteller had to plea his case in letting a Cuban-linked, Queens emcee down. Flashback to 2009 when the humble Hov protégé was cooking up a first single to catapult his tale to the top of the charts; instead, he was relegated to releasing 2010′s “Friday Night Lights” mixtape, just to ease his fans’ hunger pains. Finally, glory—or so he thought—came in 2011 when “Work Out,” debuted from “Cole World: The Sideline Story.” As revealed by his (an Kanye’s) mentor No I.D., though, the radio-friendly single was deemed inferior by one of his idols. “Nas heard your single and he hate that shit/ You “the one,” why you make that shit?,” Cole recounts on track 15. Now, let the story begin.
“Born Sinner” is the rapper’s personal stream of consciousness, relaying his battle to not let the industry lead him down a superficial, evil path. Staying true to oneself never seemed so hard. While the intro, “Villuminati” revisits a conversation with Beyoncé on her Bugatti desires, it also knocks banter that associates successful black artists with a supposed secret society (he’s a “young black millionaire” and those “old white billionaires” are good without him). “LAnd of the Snakes” calls on an encounter with a woman he’s wronged (“you ain’t worth shit nigga”), and forays into the slickest (and scariest) serenade of them all, “Power Trip.”
We see—and hear— how Cole’s production skills have grown on “Trouble” where a church chorus helps articulate his jaded views of invincibility, and nod our heads in agreement to the truths from his “Mo Money” interlude. There are Forbes’ list toppers who “laugh at Hov money,” after all. The second half of the album, though, is my personal favorite. “She Knows” featuring Amber Coffman is the hip-hop love song that we all (secretly) want to hear; we can relate to despising the wealth of “Rich Niggaz” we love to hate. Then, comes the A Tribe Called Quest sample on the jewel of a record that is “Forbidden Fruit.” True to his word, the entire album doesn’t include any rap features, but this song does call on the good kid Kendrick Lamar to sing a hook or two (I’d bank on this as a next single).
Finally, the moment we’ve all been waiting for arrives: the uncharacteristic Cole that isn’t afraid to toot his own horn arrives on “Ain’t That Some Shit,” the return of TLC is marked on the inspirational “Crooked Smile,” and we pray that our idols never become our rivals on “Let Nas Down,” before a James Fauntleroy-assisted ballad knocks us out of the park.
Kanye, you’ve got some competition come June 18.