By Sowmya Krishnamurthy
They say “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” and on J. Cole new album Born Sinner, the young rapper pays homage to many great artists that have come before him.
The album kicks off with Cole shouting out two of the greatest rappers of all time on the title track “Villuminati.” “Sometimes I brag like Hov” Cole confidently spits, a nod to his mentor Jay-Z, over a beat that samples The Notorious B.I.G.’s classic “Juicy” (“Born sinner/The opposite of a winner/Remember when I used to eat sardines for dinner?”).
Not to leave the other coasts out, the rapper then name-checks 2Pac (“Sometimes I’m real like Pac”) and even new breakout Trinidad James (“My pops was club hopping back when Rick James was out/And all I get is Trinidad James”). What could be viewed as a diss against James is quickly assuaged with the rapper imitating James on “All Gold Everything” (“If the h—s like it/ love it n—a n—a nigga”). Female rapper Rah Digga and Beyonce also get name-checks on the title track as does Justin Timberlake and Timbaland. Coming full circle, Cole then re-works one of Jay-Z’s most famous lines with his own spin. “Allow me to re-introduce myself/My name is Cole.”
Cole’s southern roots are also seen throughout Born Sinner. The song “Land Of The Snakes” samples OutKast’s “Da Art of Storytelling Pt.1.” In the introspective cut, Jay-Z name-checks hip-hop moguls Diddy and his famed running of the NY Marathon as well as fellow Queens rapper 50 Cent (“Ran that shit like Diddy/Riding through South Side Queens like Fiddy.”)
Cole is definitely a 90s kid and it’s clear that artists of that time have influenced him (although old school rapper Dana Dane gets some love on “Rich N—-z.”). Ruff Ryders’ First Lady Eve is referenced in “Runaway” (She’s has got to spend her nights alone/And she ride or die like Eve and ‘em”) while DMX is given a nod on “She Knows” (“What these bitches want from a nigga/On some DMX sh–”) as are collective Mos Def and Talib Kweli (“A black star, Mos Def, Kweli”). Aaliyah, Left Eye and Michael Jackson are also shouted out on the number.
“Forbidden Fruit” also has several 90s references including Ma$ e’s conversion to religion, Boyz II Men’s frontman Wanya Morris and A Tribe Called Quest. Kanye West also gets a shout-out on the track, but it’s all love (“I’mma drop the album the same day as Kanye”…”And I don’t mean no disrespect, I praise legends”).
Understandably, Jay-Z’s name and influences are most apparent on the album. “Mo Money” has Cole referencing wealth as “Hov money” while he openly talks about being signed on his single “Power Trip” (“Now a n—-a signed to Hov, took a power trip”). The most obvious homage on Born Sinner is “Let Nas Down,” a song Cole wrote specifically as an ode to impress Nas after he heard that his music didn’t impress his hero.
The track opens with Nas’ lyrics from “Nas Is Like” and then goes into Cole’s story. “Told me Nas heard your single and he hate that sh–…I can’t believe I let Nas down/Damn, my heart sunk to my stomach, I can’t believe I let Nas down.” Realizing his lyrical similarities to Kanye’s love letter to Jay-Z “Big Brother,” Cole reworks a direct line from that song’s hook (“Now what you’re ’bout to hear’s a tale of glory and sin/No I.D. my mentor now let the story begin”).
Clearly, J. Cole respects the legends, but now he’s in the same game as they are. It’s a fine line between love and competition and something the young emcee grapples with. One line in particular, sums up this fact not only on “Let Nas Down,” but on Born Sinner as a whole. “Yeah, long live the idols, may they never be your rivals.”