In three very plainspoken tweets last month, J. Cole announced that he would be releasing his sophomore album, Born Sinner, a week early, to compete with Kanye West's Yeezus. Too often a label holds an album so it doesn't get overshadowed by a bigger release, but Cole has managed to steal some of Kanye's thunder without appearing either greedy or disrespectful. He's merely seizing the moment, a virtue he espouses on "Forbidden Fruit": "Life's a bitch, and that pussy's wet."
True, Cole mocks "New God Flow" (from Kanye's Cruel Summer release) on "Trouble," and Born Sinner's first skit, a blustery sales pitch from famed TV charlatan Kerney Thomas, feels like a takedown of false prophets with an eye for gold. But Cole has more pressing business than ragging on a guy whose work he claims to enjoy. Indeed, Cole's newest interrogation of how to be responsible with power, cash, and sex-symbol status is as penetrating as anyone's. That includes Mr. West.
The album's organizing principle is a rapper's addiction to women, which Cole illustrates richly, but without any sense of misogynist puffery. Steve McQueen went down similar dark paths in Shame, but the filmmaker's focus was predominantly on the self-destructive elements of sex addiction. Cole, in keeping with his good-dude street rep, is more concerned with repercussions for the women. On the emotionally canny "Crooked Smile," he serves as motivational speaker: "You wonder why you're lonely and your man's not calling...So all you see is what you lacking, not what you packing." The woman in question has been jilted by a heel who sounds suspiciously like the lothario Cole embodies on other tracks, and he consoles her for her loneliness, her bad orthodonture, and all that "pressure" to find a good man. Cole has a rare talent for turning heavy ballad material into a club-banging dance track—a danse macabre, perhaps, but a dance nonetheless.
Cole is, of course, a singer as well as a rapper-producer and does excellent work when he goes all croony during a hook. ("Power Trip" would probably work just as well if Cole took over Miguel's schmaltzy cameo.) But his songster's instinct serves him well in verses, too, which include loose snatches of melody, often right before a beautiful bass drop (see the tremendous third track, "Land of the Snakes," for a master class.) Yes, Cole holds a magna cum laude degree, but he never elevates concept over instinct, one reason his work feels, to use the word he wants us to use, real. Cole's conspicuous confidence in his art is likewise arresting, especially among other dues-paying rappers of his generation. At times it almost feels like he's playing with one hand behind his back, just because he can.
And here's the only real problem with Born Sinner: Cole's production work is elegant, but he's first and foremost a words guy, and when you're competing with the lushness of Kendrick Lamar (who makes a spooky appearance on "Forbidden Fruit") or the preening, infectious weirdness of Kanye, playing it straight is probably not sexy enough. Born Sinner doesn't match the cohesive satisfactions of Good Kid, M.A.A.D City, though it boasts better writing. "Chaining Day" bears close study, especially given this year's apparent vogue for rapping about slavery. Avoiding pat notions of servitude, Cole emphasizes how platinum chains can be just as restrictive as ones made of iron.
For OutKast, whose influence is more prominent here than on 2011's Cole World: The Sideline Story, questions of sexual responsibility took on serious social import. Cole ups the emotional stakes further, as he (or his persona) dishes recriminations about women spurned and the attendant disruptions in already-fraught communities. His palpable sense of responsibility is matched by his slick but convincing critiques of hip-hop's culture of conspicuous consumption. "Money don't last," he notes more than once, and it's very tempting to believe Cole is in the game principally for his art. But the hustler in him wants to be number one, and if his next album is to explode properly, he should apply his elegant and unflinching style to stories beyond his own—and perhaps not overshadow his singular talents with release-date stunts.