When I say that I’m the greatest, I ain’t talking about later
I’mma drop the album the same day as Kanye
Just to show the boys the man now like Wanyá
And I don’t mean no disrespect, I praise legends
But this what next the boy sick, can’t disinfect
– J. Cole, “Forbidden Fruit”
J. Cole’s decision to intentionally release Born Sinner, his second official album, on the same day as Kanye West’s Yeezus is bold and a little bit crazy. J. Cole is projected to sell around 150,000 copies in his first week, and most other weeks, that would guarantee him a No. 1 debut. But West is projected to sell more than three times as many records, and there’s just no competing with the hype machine behind his album. On paper, this looks like an incredibly dumb move, but it’s actually a stroke of genius.
For one thing, Cole gets to position himself as a scrappy underdog with fans; the David to Kanye’s Goliath. Like West, he’s a rapper-producer auteur, and hungry to prove himself as a major figure in hip-hop. By going up against the biggest, most acclaimed artist in rap, he forces himself into the conversation at a time when he might otherwise go completely ignored outside the niche of mainstream hip-hop.
More importantly, Cole’s music — classic backpacker hip-hop in the vein of West’s own early albums — is ideal counter programming to the aggressive and abrasive electro sound of Yeezus. Born Sinner could benefit from feeling safe and familiar in the way that Coldplay’s career surged when Radiohead went full-on arty with Kid A and left millions of people jonesing for another “Fake Plastic Trees.”
This isn’t to say that Cole’s record is some drab or boring thing. He’s not only just a pretty-good rapper, but a very gifted producer with an ear for warm, lived-in samples. He’s clearly a major rap nerd, and that’s both a blessing and a curse for his own music — Born Sinner has the same tame, oddly academic tone as a lot of albums by the similarly obsessive musicians in The Roots. In contrast to Yeezus, which mainly draws inspiration outside of hip-hop culture, Born Sinner is a rich stew of references to the rap canon — Cole loops a clip of Biggie Smalls’s voice, shares samples with classics by Outkast and A Tribe Called Quest, and includes lyrics that pay homage to Nas, 2Pac, Jay-Z, and his friend Kendrick Lamar. It’s as reverential as a rap record can be, to the point that Cole’s most emotional performance is on a song about feeling incredibly distressed about disappointing Nas, his favorite emcee.
“Let Nas Down” is heart-warming, but also an extremely rare thing: a hip-hop song in which the emcee basically grovels for the approval of another rapper. West actually has a very similar song, “Big Brother,” about his relationship with Jay-Z, and Cole directly references it. But Kanye is a long way from the humility and vulnerability he displayed on his first three albums, and Born Sinner comes off as the polar opposite of Yeezus. How much further from “I Am A God” can you get than “Let Nas Down”? Cole’s music may be conservative, but it’s also recognizably down to earth and relatable in a way that Yeezus is not. Kanye West may be a genius and far more influential as an artist and star, but who can root for him now? Cole is primed to be the little guy you want to see take it to the next level, just like Kanye not so long ago.