Review written by Brad W. (@Brad_C_Williams). Contributing author Kelly G. (@TheKellz_G).

In his discography, this is only his second major-label album release. The ambiance and energy surrounding Jermaine Cole’s sophomore album Born Sinner, however, feels self-vindicating for the new arrival of the young North-Carolinian. Quite honestly, Born Sinner is the first album he’s released that’s consisted of entirely new material.

In the opening track “Villuminati,” J. Cole bluntly states that, like the title of the album suggests, “it’s way darker this time.” It’s true, Born Sinner markedly veers away from the basketball-themed albums Friday Night Lights and Cole World: The Sideline Story, calling upon The Notorious B.I.G.‘s famous sample from “Juicy” – “born sinner/the opposite of a winner” – to reintroduce himself and his music to an audience well-aware of his previous image as a conscious hip-hop purist. The primary conceptual thread between each song is of a man giving into sin and dealing with its effects. While J. Cole successfully darkens his subject matter and production for this album, adding an intriguing level to his music not present on Cole World: The Sideline StoryBorn Sinner plateaus and brings his progression and dreams of becoming a staple in the youthful rap community to a point of stagnation.

The projects cohesion, and where J. Cole ultimately succeeds in establishing his sinister environment, stems from his production and engineering. Cole took on all of the production duties, except for the interlude “Mo Money” produced by Jake One. Many music fans will be be subtly delighted by the number of samples used, paying homage to his predecessors. Most notability, “Forbidden Fruit” adapts A Tribe Called Quest‘s classic “Electric Relaxation” into a grittier narration his playful tantalization of women, perfectly synthesizing Kendick Lamar‘s vocals on the chorus. While lyrically paradoxical, who didn’t enjoy the daring Outkast sample on “LAnd of Snakes”? Featuring the two living members of TLC, “Crooked Smile” incorporates Jennifer Hudson‘s “No One Gonna Love You” for an uplifting moment in the album praising natural beauty and individuality. Furthermore,  J. Cole appropriately parallels his terse response to misogynistic accusations with a sample from the CultsBad Things” that hits the audience with terrific force. Some critics point to a drop off in intensity following “Villuminati,” yet I don’t believe J. Cole must rapidly quicken the pace of his flows or productions in order to engage his audience. The production is top-notch throughout and offers a multitude of various sounds for the ominous atmosphere of J. Cole’s dark creation.

Cole’s ability to methodically flow over his beats is both impeccable and unquestionable. Normally, it is where Cole demonstrates his poise, perfectly meshing himself into each song. Classic Jermaine – cold and thoughtful verses lace the entirety of the project. Standout tracks include “Power Trip” featuring Miguel, “Let Nas Down,” and “Miss America,” the premature November single that ended up as a bonus track on the deluxe edition.

Unfortunately, J. Cole’s lines on homosexuality and homophobia are inexcusable and should have been admitted. On the first verse of “Villuminati,” Cole states “if you want to get fucked in the ass/That’s between you and whoever else’s dick it is/Pause, maybe that line was too far/Just a little joke to show how homophobic you are.” He later retreated from his strong statement in a follow-up interview, stating that the lines were meant to stir conversation of same-sex marriage by turning the blame on those who are quick to agree with him. Still, his response begs the question: “why?” Intensity and controversial statements are great when they achieve their intended goal. These lines fail in forcing Cole’s audience to reassess their subconscious homophobia and only confuse the listener on his overall intent of including them.

It is difficult to decipher which identity J. Cole  envisioned for himself on the album. Is Jermaine the east coast equivalent to Tre Styles, aka Cuba Gooding Jr., from Boyz N The Hood, medially located between two cultures yet inherently moral? Or is Cole the chauvinistic rap-star mastermind? J. Cole, like all humans, struggles daily between good and evil, God and sin, but the necessary conscious thread indicating his understanding and thoughtfulness of this paradox never seems to emerge from the beginning of the album to the end. For example: “Rich Niggaz” details his experiences with drug addictions and depressions, ending his second verse with “Money can’t save your soul.” Two songs later on “Chaining Day,” he glorifies consumerism when admitting that “image is everything I see” and that he loves the “slavery” of the chains he purchases. At the end, “Born Sinner” is melodically catchy and soulful with James Fauntleroy complimenting the concordant piano but does not resolve  the central reoccurring motifs of image, fame, and success in conflict throughout the album.

Born Sinner is definitely worth a listen, and J. Cole is showing the music industry he’s no longer riding in the backseat at Roc Nation. While numerous conflicts arise in his overall message and conceptual approach to the album, each song offers dynamic sounds with powerful vocals. He optimizes his own smooth flow with his production, creating beautifully organic Dreamvillian tracks. Not a revolutionary album for hip-hop or J. Cole, but a step in the right direction that other young artists should take note of. And for those who are wondering how I rank the album against the other June 18th releases, I find it second to Statik Selectah‘s Extended Play and ahead of Kanye West‘s Yeezus and Mac Miller‘s Watching Movies With The Sound Off.

Purchase J. Cole’s Born Sinner and let us know what you think in the comments!