[Roc Nation / Columbia; 2013]

J. Cole has been on the run the past year, repositioning following the awkward misstep that was his major label debut, Cole World. As the album’s sub-title, The Sideline Story, bludgeons the listener over the head with, Cole is – quite insistently – hip hop’s perpetual underdog. In truth, the rapper is most comfortable spitting simple musings and reflecting on a lack of belonging. This can be his strongest ally, but simultaneously makes most of his attempts at boasting fall flat, as near all aspects to Born Sinner attest.

As the album opens, Cole immediately asserts, “It’s way darker this time.” Alright, we’ll take his word for it, but one would hope the material could have said this for him. The first track’s strongest moments come, as always, from his insecurities, telling of Beyoncé buying a car that, “was probably more than he was worth,” and that, “she knew it, probably.” At the same time, he ham-handedly, repeatedly remarks, “Sometimes I brag like Hov,” during the chorus.

Which is no surprise, Cole is rather obsessed with his progenitors, from Jay-Z the mentor, to dedicating an entire awkward ballad to Mr. Illmatic himself on “Let Nas Down,” with other more subtle nods abound. One has to hand it to the kid for trying, but Cole has an eternal habit of biting off more than he can chew with his intentions, such as borrowing the backdrop from OutKast’s “Art of Storytelling Pt. 1” for his “Land of the Snakes,” instantly dooming his track to endless comparisons to the vastly superior original. That isn’t to take a shot, but certain things are just best left alone, untouchable.

In fact, in his fervor to top his debut – and make more of an impact on the rap landscape – Cole has put his album in an unfortunate position. Yes, the Kanye battle must be discussed. Bumping his release date up in order to go head-to-head with Mr. West, the young MC certainly had to be confident in his LP’s quality, or desperate for the attention it’d bring.

The folly in his move is simple. West’s LP, whatever its flaws, is a work from a visionary, unique to the core. Cole, while a stalwart, likeable figure, is ultimately the underdog he likes to play. His debut was a misstep, to be sure, but what Born Sinner with Cole firing from all cylinders is perhaps more troubling for him.

Quite simply, that the mild-mannered rapper embodies the average. The LP is constantly listenable, never exciting; never poor, and never outstanding. It simply exists, the musical equivalent of an inanimate object.

Cole’s greatest strength, in truth, is behind the boards, rather than on the mic. Producing the lion’s share of the tracks here, his beats have never sounded better. His voice and rhymes, however, are as indistinctive as ever. This is sure to incite rage from his surprisingly large contingent of internet fans, but considering the MC’s greatest moments, one is hard pressed to think of any brilliant dialogue. “Lights Please” excelled thanks to his ‘down to earth’, likeable persona, rather than any clever lyricism, the same can be said for the heavy handed “Lost Ones.” “In the Morning” succeeded thanks to the Drake appearance, who flirted circles around Cole’s awkward faux player attitude.

Seemingly aware of this, Cole restricted other rappers from this LP, only allowing a far more talented Kendrick Lamar a chorus. A smart move, in truth, but an equally telling one. In a generation that’s rapidly filling with unique and clever voices, Cole is the odd man out. Not nearly as flamboyant as the likes of Danny Brown and Schoolboy Q, without the crossover appeal of Drake, and far from possessing the storytelling ability and vision of Lamar and Big K.R.I.T, his position and future is uncertain. If Born Sinner proves anything, it’s that he’s not ready to take the fall, but he as a long way to go if he wants to rope off an area all his own in hip hop’s evolution.