It is questionable whether Hip-Hop, defined as a genre of poetry beginning in the 1970s, as ever used as much religious imagery as it has in the 21st century. Nas had “God’s Son” (Columbia, 2002), The Game had “Jesus Piece” (Interscope, 2012), Kanye West had “Yeezus” (DefJam, 2013), and J. Cole has recently put out “Born Sinner” (RocNation, 2013). Unfortunately however, the amount of religious imagery used in Hip-Hop and the engagement of theologians with these deeply spiritual portrayals of the mistakes and glories of artists, has not naturally equalized. The review of J. Cole’s most recent album presented here then will not deal with the lyrical acrobatics or production, but quite specifically with the content of the portrayal that J. Cole has given us. It is in this spirit then that we will look at the album, track by track, focusing in on some of the major themes of the album (e.g. sex, fame, sin, pastors, women etc…) and taking a good look at how Cole engages his conceptual universe and the story he intends to tell us about the “Born Sinner”:
1) Villuminati– With this intro we are presented at once with a man who thinks, much like his mentor Jay-Z, that he is a god, “Sometimes I brag like Hov”. Yet, at the same time, we are also introduced to a man who acknowledges that the pressure he is facing to make this album a success drives him to throw himself at the mercy of the devil and join the Illuminati, which in Hip-Hop is a prime incarnate symbol of evil. He is caught between (1) his seemingly divine ability to survive his struggles, from living in a neighbourhood, which unlike the U.S. army “cannot tell the difference between Iraqi, Israeli”, his good desires to help stop his friends from drug dealing, and prophetic attempts at demanding from the U.S. government an apology to the African-American community, and (2) his yet needing to atone for his own sins by “getting back with this pen”, his admission that even if he got reparation money he probably just spend it on cars, and his begging the Devil to retrieve his own soul. And “Devil don’t play fair”. He is not officially a member of the Illuminati, yet he is no different from them, other than in his lack of money, for he lets the Devil control his soul and hides his tears.
2) Kerney Sermon (Skit)- This short skit is from Pastor Kerney Thomas, a black tele-evangelist, who is quite obviously selling lies and scams to people, promising them healing and restoration. One can only suspect that Cole inserted this seemingly random skit at this point in the album in order to make the comparison between false pastors that want your money, promising you happiness, and the music industry that promises you glory if you sell your soul. As Immortal Technique would put it, they’re two heads of the same seven-headed dragon (The Cause of Death, Revolutionary Vol. 2, Viper Records, 2003).
3) LAnd of the Snakes- Chronicling his rise to fame, he notes that early on he had received warnings that the ‘snakes’ were watching him, that he was missing church, but he was too obsessed with sex to notice. Here is when we receive one of the most graphic depictions of the doctrine of original sin, of being a “Born Sinner”. Cole says “I came out the womb with my d*ck hard”. His obsession with sex and not committing take a turn for the worse when an old lover from the past returns to let him know that while he thought she was not important enough to be committed too, it was him who “wasn’t worth sh*t”. Despite his riches his sin kept him and his soul from being of any moral worth. He is the snake he was warned about. During the end of the second verse he says, “Gotta ask myself, ‘What mean the world to me?”- this is the haunting question Jesus asked in the Gospel of Matthew, “What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?” (Matt. 16:26), for this is what has happened to Cole.
4) Power Trip- Here Cole gives his ode to his one true-committed-to love, something which up to this point in the album we thought was impossible, that of Hip-Hop. “Baby I want you to want me” sings Miguel, expressing Cole’s deep desire for recognition from the Hip-Hop community. Cole, having been given the anointing from Jay-Z, is on a power trip, but nothing compared to the power that the Hip-Hop game has over him. We will find that Hip-Hop is not the only woman he is devoted to, but we will find that Cole lets her down in the same way Solomon let down Lady Wisdom.
5) Mo Money- In this interlude Cole expands upon BIG’s famous ‘Mo money, mo problems’ maxim, in that even though he lusts after wealth, he knows that it is this very wealth that when maximized to the full, causes many of the problems he grew up with and is fighting. He boasts about the wealth that he has amassed, and yet acknowledges there are men in this world who have the kind of wealth he and Jay-Z could only dream of. From tele-a-fraud-angelist Peter Popoff, to prostitutes, to strip club loiters, to heavy drinkers, to single parents going from pay-check to pay-check, Cole exposes how money is constantly not being invested wisely by people, particularly the black community, on the lower-economic end of society. It is precisely because of this, not from their inability to gain money, but rather control money that results in their poverty. The symbol of the ‘white’ man appears to stand for the ultra-rich, the 1%. While listening to this track, one cannot help but be reminded of Immortal Technique’s brilliant, “Rich Mans World (1%)“, where he impersonates the ultra-rich flaunting their wealth.
6) Trouble- In this track, Cole intends to present himself as absolute villain, he’s King Koopa, not Mario. He acknowledges that the Hip-Hop industry has made him stupider than ever, and he would only go back to school to chase women, leave them pregnant, and again, never commit. His problem is not commitment as such but rather commitment to any person, other than himself. He can’t settle with a nice smart girl, he’d never be able to be a father, and the only thing he’ll promise is that if you get in his way of getting to the Promised Land, of fame and fortune that Hip-Hop has promised him, he will send you to your ‘promised land’….six-feet under. Here Cole shows us another side of the Exodus story, for he is not the noble Moses trying to save his people, rather he is just another lustful warrior seeking a new promised land, willing to defeat any foe, devoting himself to war and snatching women, than to wisdom. Here Cole takes us to the dark side of believing in divine inheritance…the belief that the promise is unconditional. We will soon find however that his commitment to Hip-Hop will be the conditional factor as to whether Cole can find redemption and enter the promised Land.
7) Runaway- If “Trouble” is Cole’s presentation of himself as villain, “Runaway” is him taking a good look at himself in the mirror. Cole’s strained relationship with his girlfriend shows his failure to love and be committed. He has a wonderful woman, but he is so addicted to his lifestyle of hanging out with his friends, and hitting the strip-club, that he knows he can’t stay committed, so he is telling his girlfriend to runaway from the monster that is him. What comes next is one of the deepest theological moments throughout the album, out of the guilt he has, he lays out that,
“When it’s all said and done everybody dies
In this life ain’t no happy endings
Only pure beginnings followed by years of sinning and fake repentance
The preacher says we were made in image of Lord
To which I replied: “Are you sure?
Even the murderer? Even the whore?
Even the n*gga running through b*tches on tour?””
Reflecting upon the passage in the creation narrative of the Book of Genesis (Gen. 1:26), that humankind was made in the image of God, he asks how we, as humanity, can possibly reflect the image of God when we are full of sin and brokenness, including his own. How can he possibly reflect the image of God, when all his life he’s been living in sin as part of vicious cycle?
In the third verse we are given the answer in a most strange and bizarre manner. After Cole reminiscences about advice that he had received from a perverted old man, and how it was even more strangely accurate, given that we are all the same, regardless of skin tone- Cole asks whether he can escape the oppression we all face in our mentalities being colonized by the rich white men who have raped our planet, if he follows his heart. Dave Chapelle comes in as the unlikely heroic figure, who was able to turn down 50 Million dollars to instead spend his time in Africa (i). Cole wonders whether he’d being able to abandon the money, fame, and glory, and finally be able to commit to a woman….possibly Mother Africa.
8) She Knows, 10) Where’s Jermaine? (Skit) & 11) Forbidden Fruit (Feat. Kendrick Lamar)- These three tracks really belong to be treated together for they essentially discuss the same topic….the complications of lust. In “She Knows”, Cole in reminding his audience about Martin Luther King’s affair, affirms that even the righteous can be caught in adultery, and live with the fear of being caught. With the skit then going into the track with Kendrick Lamar, we are presented with the temptation of sexual pleasure, in this way, Adam (along with every man with him) was ‘whipped’ or completely subservient to Eve because of his sexual attraction to her. Throughout he proclaims his mastery , and yet exhibits how he is enslaved to Father Time, Sex, the approval of Hip-Hop magazines, and God. In the midst of promoting his ‘greatness’ he shows that his destiny is destruction, his god is his stomach, and his glory is in his shame (Phil. 3:19).
9) Rich Niggaz- Here we get an extremely rich portrait of Cole and his mother’s struggle with poverty growing up, and his inbreed hatred for wealthy people because of it. The born rich, those born into an oligarchy, never had to work for their money or indulge in sin to achieve their wealth. While Cole and his mother did desperately need the wealth due to father figures constantly leaving and drugs, there is still the unspoken of evils of wealth. Though he despised the oligarchs, he has unwittingly become one of them and has an enormous over-looming fear that he will become like all other emcees that had lusted for fortune and fame….dumb, heartless, cold, boring, and materialistic. In fact, one can only speculate how much of this track is directed towards Jay-Z, who while not born rich also claims to be ‘the Mike Jordan of recording’ and maybe treats Cole as a Scott Pippin. Is Cole expressing shame over trying to imitate his mentor? That while, as for Jay-Z, the money may have saved him from his poverty, it could not save him from himself.
12) Chaining Day & 13) Ain’t that Some Shit (interlude)- Now we come to the low point in the album, where we can’t help but feel that Cole (perhaps intentionally) is portraying himself as the rich, dumb, boring rapper that he feared becoming. With “Chaining Day” he acknowledges the same guilt Kanye felt about having a diamond encrusted piece of Jesus, who said “Blessed are the Poor” (Luke 6:20), and acknowledges (unlike Yeezus) that this is a slavery he has chosen, that he loves and hates at the same time…he is a participant in his own slavery. With “Ain’t that some Shit” we see the line about “years of sinning and fake repentance”, really come to life…nothing more.
13) Crooked Smile (feat. TLC)- It’s not entirely clear how this track is suppose to follow from the previous one, but we’re all glad it’s there! Perhaps this is Cole’s attempt at redeeming himself in the eyes of his female fans with his pen. He is paying for his sins of cheating and womanizing by acknowledging just how hard women have it in our society. What Cole does here is expose himself in the most honest manner possible, acknowledging not just his insecurities but his insecurities as to how he looks. Most men probably have insecurities about how they look, but how many would actually admit what they are in a Hip-Hop track? It may be proper to give a round of applause right now. However, he doesn’t stop there, but goes even further in his last verse where he talks about the structural racism of the American prison system and entertainment industry…for even lady Liberty has a crooked smile. Lastly, Cole in tracing on the theme of being made in the image of God speaks to his female audience that they too were made in the image of God, each one of them are God’s masterpiece (Eph. 2:10).
15) Let Nas Down- Cole now let’s us one more peek into his confession booth…for his greatest sin was against the one woman that he thought he was absolutely committed too, Hip-Hop. “Pac was like Jesus, Nas wrote the Bible” (Illmatic, Columbia, 1994) is how the theological frame is situated in the state of Hip-Hop, and Cole here traces how his attempt at a chart topping hit greatly disappointed his chief idol, the one to whom he was most compared, NAS. In the mix of sadness and anger Cole tries first to make Nas sympathize with Cole’s situation as an artist on a label, who needed a cheesy radio hit, only to confess that while he wanted to change the Hip-Hop game he began to be conformed by it. He wanted to be in the world but not of it…and here he was disappointing one of the best to do it. However, it is in the third verse where Cole begins to explain his redemptive purpose and methods as to how he wanted to change Hip-Hop for the better, while along the way using an extended metaphor of the passion narrative of Jesus Christ to describe his journey (ii). Cole’s purpose is to bring honesty back to Hip-Hop, to make it real and not just entertainment. Cole’s method though has followed the path of many, 1- produce a radio hit that unfamiliar listeners will hear, and 2- hope that they go through the rest of your catalog to find your more thought provoking material, the stuff you really want them to listen to. The method is to Cole as like a ‘sacrifice’ of his art, that while his purpose is greater, he is not and understands that fellow sinners may need a little bit of musical seduction in order to bring them to the truth. Cole describes making a radio hit as going into Hell, following the tradition of the ‘harrowing of hell’ in which Jesus descends into Hell to rescue lost souls. Nas controversially on his album Hip-Hop is Dead (Def Jam, 2006), proclaimed exactly that and Cole understands himself as one who attempted to bring it back to life by enduring the flames of Hell with the hope that honesty would emerge.
16) Born Sinner (feat. @Fauntleroy)- If Cole wanted to preach one sermon during the course of this album this is it: “I’m a born sinner, but I die better than that…I was born sinning but I live better than that”. Here Cole begs God for forgiveness, acknowledging that Hip-Hop is the woman God gave him to put all his soul into and that while he may have never gotten the church to worship, has committed to living better, bringing honesty to Hip-Hop, saving his mother out of poverty, and most of all bringing hope to those society considered worthless. If one is a deeply spiritual person, the chorus almost sings from the bottom of your soul.
What J. Cole has given us is a theology of Hip-Hop and from Hip-Hop, that can be summarized as follows: We are all born sinners, selfish from the womb. We are addicted and willingly slaves to “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life” (1 John 2:16). Not only are we entrenched in evil, but we know how evil it is and we know just how close we are to those we criticize whether they the Illuminati, rappers, or sinful pastors. We are proclaimed from the pulpit to be made in the image of God, though whenever we look in the mirror all we can see are our flaws. Where can redemption be found? In part, with a confession of our sins and a commitment to repentance. For Cole and all Hip-Hoppers these take the form of being honest in our lyrics, and a commitment to the aide of oppressed, the widow, and the orphan. Yeezus showed us the absurdity of what happens when a person thinks they’re a god, Born Sinner has shown us what happens to a person when they are deeply honest about our frail condition….but what would a Hip-Hop album look like that would show us how we can live better than sinners….not being a god, but a God-send…a Saint?
(ii) Astute readers will know that this is also in parallel with Nas who attempted to do the same on many occasions.