If the self-mythologizing of "Yeezus" is a little much for you, how about a rap album where the MC is bummed that he disappointed his hero? J. Cole's "Born Sinner" is at the other end of the universe from Kanye West's latest — a quieter, self-examining rap record that's short on audacity but long on workman-like singles.
Take "Let Nas Down," where the North Carolina-based Cole recounts an incident in which his idol, the rapper Nas, didn't take well to one of Cole's singles. It's a smart gambit for a song — he gets to be humble and imply a place among the greats. But the moody tune is short on specifics of the encounter, and a good idea for a self-interrogating story-song is wasted.
Cole's not an especially charismatic MC, but he has a welcome self-awareness and good taste in backdrops. "Crooked Smile" is soulful and rousing (even if he's too hard on his perfectly acceptable orthodontics), and "Power Trip," his bleary duet with the R&B Lothario Miguel, has small-hours gauziness. But his verses are well-greased machines that are often forgettable (Kendrick Lamar somehow packs more personality into a halfhearted hook on "Forbidden Fruit" than Cole gets in the song). Humility goes a long way on rap radio today; but then again, so does gobsmacking arrogance and invention.
Two and a half stars
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