Considering the close proximity in release date between J. Cole’s Born Sinner and Jay-Z’s Magna Carta…Holy Grail (about a month), I thought it might be appropriate to give a little time to these albums that have received short thrift on LxL. These two may not be as indelibly linked as Dre and Eminem or even Jay-Z and Kanye. But, J. Cole was the first artist to sign to Jay-Z’s Roc Nation label, was featured on The Blueprint 3, and also seemingly has a high acumen for the business side of hip-hop much like Jay. So, who’s 2013 album turned out to be more successful, the master or the protege?
Magna Carta…Holy Grail
Jay-Z’s career bares some resemblance to Michael Jordan’s. After Michael Jordan retired from the Bulls (the second time) he was an aging superstar when he came back to the Wizard’s. The level of performance just wasn’t there anymore, no matter how bad he wanted to be the player he used to. Jordan still occasionally had games that reminded fans of the player he used to be, but consistency was an issue.
Ever since Jay-Z “retired” with the release of The Black Album, his performance has been inconsistent. We can all see the greatness that used to be ever-present (like The Blueprint 3’s “On to the Next One”), but coming up with a consistently great album has been a problem for Jay-Z. And unfortunately, Magna Carta…Holy Grail accelerates his pattern of a less-than-graceful decline.
With producers like Timbaland, Swizz Beatz, and Pharrell Williams working on the album, at least there isn’t anything particularly painful about Holy Grail. In fact, the production is quite good on much of the album. Jay-Z just fails to bring his A-game, and is easily eclipsed by eminently more interesting guest appearances from Justin Timberlake, Rick Ross, and Beyonce.
Things start off interestingly enough with Timberlake’s work on “Holy Grail”, and actually end phenomenally with the best track of the album, “Nickels & Dimes”. Most everything in between falls a little flat though, making Jay-Z’s latest at best a mediocre effort.
I had zero expectations for Born Sinner. I kind of had this Drakien view of J. Cole, I suppose just because he seems like a smooth operator that also manages to market himself pretty well. He also supported Drake on his last tour, which is a association no rapper needs to have.
Luckily, at the behest of one of my friends, I gave Born Sinner a chance, and came away pleasantly surprised. The album may be a little long in the tooth, coming in at 21 tracks (three of which are dumb skits), but in today’s landscape of “throw a bunch of shit against the wall and see what sticks” rap albums, Born Sinner has very little to apologize for. The guest spots are spot on with Kendrick Lamar doing his thing very well on “Forbidden Fruit”. Born Sinner even has a track featuring TLC, which rings a little bit of 90’s Bad Boy records before that whole organization went to hell.
The low-point is the unfortunately titled “Let Nas Down”, where Cole apologizes for, you guessed it, letting Nas down over a brutally lounge-y saxophone riff. J. Cole is certainly going against the braggadocious industry norm of not apologizing for anything, but it is just gross and pandering and gross again.
Besides that slip-up, tracks like “Villuminati” and “Rich Niggaz” display the versatility of J. Cole, going from rapid and ferocious to measured couplets. He may not be quite of Kendrick’s level as far as being able to slip into whatever role he wants, but he has real talent. In the next couple of albums we’ll be able to see whether J. Cole takes that talent and does great things or fades into the norm.
It’s not much of a competition here. J. Cole clearly released the superior album to Jay-Z. Do I think J. Cole is going to have an overall career better than Jay-Z? Of course not. But as of this moment, J. Cole is operating at a higher level than the legend that was a big part in breaking him into the game.