If his debut found J. Cole bringing the sound of Drake down to the streets, the Roc Nation rapper's sophomore effort finds him going for the full Illuminati and attempting an ambitious, multi-faceted album in the style of his label boss, Jay-Z. No spoiler alert required for that one as the opening "Villuminati" has the gall to sample Biggie's classic "Juicy" while using Jay's nickname as a mantra by repeating "Sometimes I brag like Hov," but besides this, Born Sinner is the a more self-confessional and word-filled effort than before, all of it very busy and Black Album minus the references to Beyoncé and the beats from Rick Rubin. Cole is the one who produced most of the album himself with his Kanye-sense of sampling (work songs, gospel, old soul, etc.) and his love of hard bass (check "Trouble," "Chaining Day," or infectious single "Power Trip" for some great low end) both returning from before, but it's his love of jazz that provides the greatest rewards as "Forbidden Fruit" (it's like Erykah Baduh meets Ice Cube on this soulful dude cut with guest Kendrick Lamar) and "Let Nas Down" (a pledge to honor the man with better rhymes and less pop) are both driven by their Blue Note-inspried backbeats. All this bold borrowing is backed up by lyrics that flow fine until their shocking twists ("She raisin' that guy's kids while she swallowin' mine"), while "She Knows" with Dirty Projectors vocalist Amber Coffman is shameless enough to spit "This is Martin Luther King in the Club/With a bad bitch in his ear/Saying that she down for whatever/In the back of his mind is Coretta." It's snide, smart-ass stuff and when it comes to sublime/ridiculous balancing act that his heroes Jay-Z and Nas have mastered, Cole is a little short on the sublime side here to be considered classic. Still, "Crooked Smile" with special guests TLC is a genuine, mature step in the right direction and will have no trouble reaching vintage age. A handful of other numbers carry that same weight, making Born Sinner a daring step forward for Cole and an exciting attempt at mastering Jay's Blueprint style.
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AllMusic Review by David Jeffries