Kanye and J. Cole: Two Once and Future Sinners.


“In this life ain’t no happy endings. Only pure beginnings, followed by years of sinning and fake repentance.” –J. Cole, ‘Runaway’ – Born Sinner (2013)

Kanye West is hard. Cruel as amp feedback, horny as always, irreverent as ever. Soon as I pull up and park the Benz,/we get this bitch shaking like Parkinson’s. From the Apogee flash-bang incineration of ‘On Sight’, we strain to keep pace and patience with Kanye the Belligerent Minotaur, trampling a new wave of violent sounds. Not beats, but sounds: the first half of Yeezus is an industrial reel of squeaks, squeals, screams, static and sirens befitting the alternative history in which Liv pulses at the heart of London during the Blitz.

Drafting the never-too-sober vocals of Chief Keef and Justin Vernon on ‘Hold My Liquor’ — the album’s radical middle — Kanye douses much of his sonic revolt in favor of daunting bass, neat snares, hopeless piano loops. Nina Simone blurts in edgewise, her “breeze” and “body” deflating sorely under the most imperial beat of Kanye’s vast catalogue.

Yeezus’ “challenging” sound aside, we must parse the Minotaur’s wisdom—mostly shouted, certainly misogynistic, eminently quotable. Put my fist in her like a Civil Rights sign. Wait wait. Y’all throwing contracts at me. You know that niggas can’t read. We could cite all through lunch. Always, Kanye West has had a way with words. Yet never have so many instantly bristled against what the man has to say; nor has he ever seemed so miserable saying it.

I implore you, think back. Think of College Dropout. Recall the bitterly inspirational skits; the cherubim choirs; the familial reflections, warm as a deskside latte’s steam, gently ascending. Now that he’s shattered all proximate porcelain—now that Yeezus is risen—we’re aghast and wondering when, exactly, did Kanye West become Eazy-E?

I suspect that J. Cole is wondering, too.

Born Sinner, Cole’s sophomore volley launched in calendar contention with Yeezus, is a morning stroll by comparison. Light, nimble, thoughtful, which places Cole at a new personal best. Whereas the beats of Cole’s debut often churned with slipshod timing, Sinner is a sunlight soundtrack of whistlable hooks, synced to a flow so slick and upbeat.

In rare pom-pom spirit, Cole dedicates his ‘Crooked Smile’ to all the minor flaws of self worth cherishing, backed by an 80-degree breeze from the ‘Unpretty’ crew. ‘Power Trip’, already a proven hit, is a sour love song laced ample self-deprecation, gracefully shy of a ‘Marvin’s Room’, more so dope than dopey. Even the album’s darkest chords—‘Trouble’, and the deceptively titled ‘Rich Niggaz’—are tuned to a cura personalis that’s got me, at least, assured that Cole is no budding divo.

I fear that many hip hop fans will have spun through Yeezus before taking their turn with Sinner, which by subsequent comparison will likely fall upon listeners as something tried, traditional, throwback to a pre-Yeezus serenity, and thus unimportant. But what Cole has managed is a tricky humility for the anointed: recounting the days when you were discounted, while spouting something richer than vengeance. Flexing thick skin, Cole is comfortable plucking fun at his thick-ass eyebrows and his yet meager wealth (at least compared to Beyonce’s). Auditing the course of his own rise on ‘Rich Niggaz’, Cole fears of his upward trajectory what Yeezus’ sorest detractors, Kanye’s eldest followers, recently fear of Mr. West: It’s like Sony signed Basquiat; he gave it all he got, and now the nigga don’t paint the same.

What’s most remarkable of these same-day releases is that nearly ten years after Kanye’s debut, Cole the Sinner is closer kin of Kanye the Dropout than Kanye the Minotaur is atop his alien perch. Sinner is the story of a boy getting right with God in the stretches of glory, tempering his fuck-ups on the come-up. Yeezus is Doom music, the official soundtrack of cocaine, sponsored by Emperor Palpatine. After giving Yeezus a few listens, ask yourself: What could Kanye even possibly want to press as follow-up to such a robust catharsis? What sounds come next? And does Yeezus even like us?

He’s tired.

I’m tired.

Croissants tossed aside, we look to Cole, a young Southern emcee flipping his own beats, retreading Kanye’s greener themes. Mounting debts, hot white temptations, ever-delayed penance, resentment simmering—imbibed so young, it’s a wicked brew. Ten years from now, will Cole still swear by the genteel confidence of a ‘Crooked Smile’? As of late, our Lord Yeezus is all sneers.

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  • While it’s not nearly as pervasive as Kanye’s misogyny, it’s worth noting J. Cole’s problematic moments of homophobia on Born Sinner (“Villumati,” “Forbidden Fruit”). For someone without a history of homophobic lyrics, it’s a troubling turn…and may, in fact, be a sign that he is a budding divo.

    And, FWIW, the best hip-hop album that came out on 6/18 was from Statik Selektah. Highly recommended.

    • Justin Charity

      That first verse on ‘Villuminati’, when I first heard it, made me think a couple things: that his flow overall on that track is a nod to Eminem; and that dude was feeling under the gun to match Kanye’s anticipated edge. (I’m more confident in the former point than the latter in fathoming why he spit the offending bars.)

      I think Cole was aiming to playfully neutralize a term short of realizing that he doesn’t have the power or legitimacy to do that. To me it’s jarring in that, while you can at frame Kanye’s misogyny as essential to his artwork (thus I disagree with the sentiment of this tweet from Jay Smooth: https://twitter.com/jsmooth995/status/345611871086321664), odd sparks of homophobia on Cole’s part are just gratuitous, as you pointed out. Homie should’ve thought better of it.