Words by Andreas Hale.
Lists, lists, lists.
We’re all obsessed with lists because of our insatiable curiosity to see who or what is #1. And when it comes to 2013 music lists, this was an interesting year. Hip Hop saw a majority of its heavyweights release albums. Drake, Jay Z, Eminem and Kanye West all dropped albums while we witnessed Chance The Rapper emerge as a powerful voice in a similar manner that Kendrick Lamar did when he dropped Section.80 in 2011. But unlike Kendrick’s good kid, m.A.A.d. city in 2012, there was no runaway selection for best hip hop album of 2013. As a matter of fact, this may have been one of the most difficult years to peg a “best” album.
It was far too trendy to put Yeezus at the top of many of these year-end lists because embracing something different isn’t really that different to begin with. It was more indicative of our infatuation with Kanye’s unorthodox approach rather than the music itself. Chance’s Acid Rap was great, but I get the feeling that more people saw a bandwagon and jumped on it just to be “in the know” rather than really soaking in his talent. And Drake, well, he’s Drake and people are just going to love to hate him or hate to love him.
In January, I found myself revisiting some of these so-called best albums and attempted to play them front to back while holding back my almost Tourettes-like urges to mash the skip button when I heard a song I didn’t care for. Many of these albums I struggled to listen to in their entirety. Then I landed on J. Cole’s Born Sinner and my audio version of Tourettes dissolved. After the title track ended, I sat back and thought to myself “Damn, this may have been the best album of 2013.”
The key phrase here is “may have been” as I’m still not sure what the best album of 2013 was. However, I believe I can make a very strong case as to why Born Sinner was the best album of 2013.
But before I get into the why, I need to explain something that is very imperative to this discussion.
iPods (and CDs before that) have made it really difficult to understand how important cohesion and consistency are to an album. Back in the day when cassette tapes ruled the industry, it was frustrating to have to manually fast forward through the songs you didn’t care for just to get to the ones you wanted to hear. CDs helped that process by enabling you to skip a song with a push of the button. However, you were still trapped into listening to that particular artist until you changed the CD. iPods took that concept to another level by allowing you to stuff it with all the music you enjoy while leaving out any of the fat that interrupted your listening experience.
The iPod is like a Las Vegas buffet where you have the good, the bad and the garbage at your disposal and can simply walk past a meal that you aren’t interested in. You are more likely to remember the good rather than the bad because you aren’t forced to eat it. Whereas, with a cassette you are stuck with a five-course meal where a couple of bad courses will obliterate the experience.
It made the careful crafting of an album a lost art. Artists began putting together albums with 18 songs and the idea that if you didn’t like one song, you could just skip to another. You couldn’t get away with that in the cassette era. Three bad songs in a row usually spelled the demise of an album. Now you can just act like certain songs didn’t exist and say that an album is great. Like the buffet, you can say that the good songs saved the entire experience. As long as the good is great, the bad is forgivable.
With that being the premise of my dialogue, let’s proceed with why Jermaine Lamarr Cole’s sophomore album was a great album.
Admittedly, I felt J. Cole’s Cole World: The Sideline Story was a bit too stiff and struggled with its own expectations. From the moment he announced the album, the lofty expectations began to weigh heavily on the final product. Much of the material he initially recorded ended up being on the Friday Night Lights mixtape as Cole found himself doubling back and recording new songs in an effort to deliver that Illmatic experience he desired. Unfortunately, The Sideline Story wasn’t as good as it could have been. It certainly wasn’t bad, but we all knew Cole could do better.
When he went to work on Born Sinner, it may have felt like the only place for J. Cole to go was up. Not that The Sideline Story was a flop or a musical failure, it just felt like Cole was trying too hard to impress when the truth was that we liked who he already was.
Bear with me on this analogy, if you will. The Sideline Story was like the first time you get a beautiful woman in bed and you try your hardest to leave her with the most mind-blowing sex imaginable. The kind she will tell all of her friends and make you a legend with people who had never looked in your direction twice before. But the pressure you put on yourself to impress ends up causing you to flounder in the sack. However, the fact that she comes back for more is an indication that maybe you shouldn’t try so hard and focus on doing what you do best. Instead of pulling a hamstring trying to reinvent the jackhammer, you can just add some variation to missionary. With that initial nervous energy gone and the reality that trying to pull off the porn move of the century is unnecessary, you can be the best “you” that you can be. And that’s what J. Cole did on Born Sinner.
(Whew, thanks for sticking with me on that one.)
Many artists struggle when being signed to a major label. They try too hard to be universal and lose their core in the process. Cole’s mixtapes have always been acclaimed and he needed to get back to that form of making music without trying to please every listener out there.
Interestingly enough, Born Sinner wasn’t an album that struck me as remarkable upon the first listen. It lacked the gloss and glitz that would have you rushing to hear certain songs because of a guest spot or a guest producer. Instead, it is the true definition of a slow burner where Cole decidedly kept the guest list to a minimum. Hooks from Miguel, Kendrick Lamar, James Fauntleroy and TLC (or just T&C?) were featured and Cole opted to handle the production himself (alongside Elite, NO I.D.) with the exception of Jake One, who solely produced the “Mo Money” interlude. Continue to page 2.
Pages: 1 2