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J. Cole “Born Sinner” Listening Session Recap

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“Born Sinner” will not be for everyone. It won’t come on in the club to have the entire dance floor exclaim. It won’t sit in the convertible’s CD drive to spin endlessly while the top’s down. It won’t encapsulate summer in vibe or feel. If anything, it’s for that boy or girl, man or woman, home alone, headphones on, contemplating; perhaps scribbling down thoughts onto a notepad. Not that one would reasonably expect otherwise from J.Cole, but on his sophomore album he dives deeper into a singular sound and tone. While one listen is surely too shallow of an experience to make any grand declarative statement, it is relatively clear that this album is for J. Cole and his fans. Period.

Which is why having press sit in a movie theater and listen to the album on headphones, extra large Beats By Dre no less, felt appropriate. It was by design after all, as Cole was unsatisfied with what has become the standard listening session setting: people standing around in a club or studio talking. “I want you to listen to every word,” he said before the gods above hit play.

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All invitees were instructed to arrive at the SVA Theater at 7 p.m. with their phones charged and the Lisnr app, which allows for album streaming, downloaded. There were some technical difficulties, as all in attendance jumped on the theater wi-fi, slowing down the bandwidth, but as Cole said after the session finished, “This is what happens when you use new technology.”

Once headphones were strapped on and everyone took their seat, Cole spoke, saying he wasn’t going to stop the music to tell stories, but wanted to offer context to one particular song, “Let Nas Down.” (Note: If you’d like to be fully surprised by the much talked about track, skip the following paragraph.)

Cole was a strange case before his first album, having built substantial buzz off mixtapes, he was the rare artist fans were going to a record label about. The pressure was mounting to produce a single, and though “Who Dat,” “Higher,” “Blow Up,” and “Can’t Get Enough” were all close, Cole felt, particularly from gauging Jay-Z’s reactions to them, that they weren’t enough. The six months he spent searching for that single was “literally hell” (part of the heaven and hell motif of the album comes from this struggle) as Cole made “the most uninspired music” of his career. Then, one fateful night, while listening to The College Dropout, he was struck by what he calls the worst song on that album, “New Workout Plan.” From there he created “Work Out,” convinced he had gotten his long sought-after single. Except that it got “the worst response in the world,” and prompted Nas to say, “Why the fuck that nigga make that shit. Don’t he know he the one?” At least, that’s how Coley Cole told it.

From there, he let the music speak for itself, and despite the audio cutting out intermittently, the album reflects a more evolved artist who doesn’t sound “very happy;” the lyrics from the song “Cole World” off his debut album that Elliott Wilson used to describe Cole just a few weeks ago. It’s likely that he’s very happy to have put out an album of this caliber, but the subject matter itself is somber (“It’s way darker this time” he says on the opening track “Villuminati.”).

Many of the opening songs, like “Trouble” and “She Knows,” speak to Cole’s relationship with women, how actions or perceptions have changed now that he’s certifiably famous. “Chaining Day” equates wearing a Jesus piece to new age slavery, and while the ‘chains-chains’ metaphor isn’t new, Cole’s expert wordsmanship and commitment to thematics keep it fresh.

Songs like “Crooked Smile,” and the recently leaked “Forbidden Fruit” stand out then as uncharacteristically upbeat. The change of pace is welcome though, and that both songs carry a message is a testament to Cole’s abilities as a writer.

Also on display are his abilities as a producer. Self-producing your entire album has it’s inherent advantages, one of which is being able to craft the emotion of the beat and lyrics simultaneously. Rather than hearing a dark beat and considering some dark feelings, one can feel whatever they feel; the creative process becomes all encompassing. The production here is subtle, but only in the skilled craftsmanship sense. We hear background choirs (remember that motif!), and beautiful strings and horns throughout.

It’s easy to get caught up in the hyperbole following an event like this and declare “Born Sinner” an instant classic. I think it’s a very particular album made for a particular audience. It evokes feeling and offers insight, two cornerstones of any good music. How it will sell compared to Kanye West’s “Yeezus” is uncertain, but Cole offered a parting shot on the matter before the theater cleared out.

“Buy one Kanye album, then buy two or three [copies] of this.”

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