Day 102: Yeezus vs. Born Sinner – The Vaguely Biblical Showdown
by Tom Noonan
It’s June 18th, and after all the tracklists (both real and fake), leaks, babies, streams, religious imagery, gay rumors, and Jay-Z thunder hoarding, both J. Cole and Kanye West released their albums, so the only logical thing to do is to find a completely arbitrary and critically inconsistent way of deciding which album is better. Welcome to the Born Sinner vs. Yeezus final showdown, a head to head battle that one side (J. Cole) has been working towards all his life while his oppenent (Ye) has just been told that, yes, other people can release albums on the same day as him since June 18th is not (yet) a National Holiday. This isn’t David vs. Goliath. It’s more like David vs. Goliath if Goliath also had a weapon.
Before we begin, here are the rules. This is a track by track showdown, with each individual win representing a point. Since Yeezus only had room for 10 songs, there will be multiple Born Sinner tracks going up against just one from Kanye’s album in each game. This not only gives J. Cole a better chance (more songs mean more room for Drake cameos), but it also will negate the surprising minor-ness of Yeezus. The tracks will face off based on the order they appeared on the album, meaning first track will go against first track, second against second, and so on. Since there are only 10 points available, there is a chance that we will see a tie, in which case the tie-breaker will be decided by the number of times I almost vomited while listening to each album. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that. Here we go.
Game 1: “On Sight” vs. “Villuminati”
This match-up might have been closer if Kanye hadn’t pulled what he pulled at 1:17. After over a minute of lines like, “Black Timbs all on your couch again/Black dick all in your spouse again”, being delivered over a Daft Punk-produced dance track that’s missing a dance floor, Kanye takes the audience out of the equation, leading “How much do I not give a fuck?/Let me show you right now before you give it up” into a College Dropout-era sample of the Holy Name of Mary Choral Family singing “He’ll give us what we need/It may not be what we want.” After throwing us right into the fire, this brief, vaulted intermission reminds us that, for the moment, all the hymns are about Yeezus. It is a memento and a warning, a preparation for the grotesque Gospel readings to come.
“Villuminati” is Born Sinner’s angriest and self-proclaimed “dark” track, but it’s J. Cole trying too hard to do Jay on “Public Service Announcement” with none of the self-confident production to carry the arrogant weight. Plus, all the samples fit and don’t intentionally de-rail the song to make a point.
Winner: “On Sight”
Ye: 1 – Cole: 0
Game 2: “Black Skinhead” vs. “LAnd of the Snakes”
“LAnd of the Snakes” is some J. Cole arrogance I can get on board with, a Jermaine who can competently run through girls but still worries about what his mom thinks. The song’s best lines like, “This the shit I used to roll down Lewis Street with/Lord, know some hoes from the past like/‘Damn Cole, wish I knew that you would be rich’/Well, should’ve asked” successfully shed the Drake comparisons and eventually become the source from which Born Sinner siphons its power. It’s just too bad that “LAnd of Snakes” has such a tough match-up.
Kanye’s “Black Skinhead” might just be the best thing Yeezus has offered up to us. Re-purposing echoes from My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Ye builds almost unbearable tension with “Monster”-like screams now fully integrated into the fabric of his musical being rather than serving as roll call warnings. He wants us to think this is his new theme song, but it’s probably closer to a requiem for Kanye the rap artist. When he mourns, “Come on homie what happened/You niggas ain’t breathing you gasping/These niggas ain’t ready for action/Ready-ready for action”, it becomes clear that it is not Kanye that’s left rap but rap that’s left Kanye. If anyone is Judas here, it’s everybody. Maybe that’s why there are only a handful of true guest verses on the album.
Winner: “Black Skinhead”
Ye: 2 – Cole: 0
Game 3: “I Am A God” vs. “Power Trip”/“Mo Money (Interlude)”/“Trouble”
I’m just going to get it out of the way and say “I Am A God” is a mess, an ugly, awe-inspiring, often hilarious mess. By the time Justin Vernon shows up to talk Kanye off the ledge by making promises of, “Ain’t no way I’m giving up on my God”, the song starts to feel almost intentionally overwrought, like it’s meant to sound as if Ye is dying. Those screams you’re hearing are real.
On the other side of this match-up we have “Power Trip” (and two other songs that don’t really matter because “Power Trip” is far and away the best thing J. Cole has ever done and is probably going to be remembered as the best pop song of 2013). Thanks to a next-level cameo from the best emotive crooner this side of Frank Ocean, J. Cole’s love song about love songs is endlessly listenable with a surprising drop within its first thirty seconds that gives everything an edge. This isn’t The Beatles; it’s the Rolling Stones.
Winner: “Power Trip”
Ye: 2 – Cole: 1
Game 4: “New Slaves” vs. “Runaway”
“Runaway” is an exercise in J. Cole smoothness, a type of sound no other rapper has really come close to. Even when it opens with the questionable choice of a Mike Epps bit about how men act differently around women, the smoothness of a Cole vehicle is a sure thing. The small problem with the track is that this smoothness is the best thing about it. The bigger problem with the track is that it’s going up against “New Slaves”.
The intro is enough to give “New Slaves” the win here, but let’s give at least two or three more reasons. Reason #2: “There’s leaders and there’s followers/But I’d rather be a dick than a swallower”. Reason #3: The moment when something genuinely joyful breaks up the madness, and Frank Ocean becomes the second guest to save Kanye from himself. Reason #4: The drowning, eroding-empire synths that show us to the other side of “H.A.M.”. Kanye is mortal when the song starts, but, by the end, he’s been both crucified and resurrected. This is the turning point in the album, the moment from which it derives its name. “New Slaves” is the proof that all the God stuff might not be bullshit.
Winner: “New Slaves”
Ye: 3 – Cole: 1
Game 5: “Hold My Liquor” vs. “She Knows”/“Rich Niggaz”
You need to get through three lines of defense on “Hold My Liquor” to get to Kanye. The first is Justin Vernon intentionally slurring his speech and setting up the scenery of a lonely guy fumbling with the radio. Next is Chief Keef giving us further directions, doing well to faithfully introduce our anti-hero with the line, “You say you know me, my nigga/But you really just know the old me.” That’s the thing about guest verses on Yeezus, they all serve at the pleasure of their mastermind, resembling pieces of a single, fractured consciousness more than different sides of the same story. The last line of defense is the pulsing, Ye-doing-Watchmen beat, a touch that makes everything seem more momentous than it actually is. This is probably why, when Kanye says, “Pussy had me dead/Might call 2Pac over”, you start to wonder if all this death imagery is coming from a place of fear for his possible future of monogamy as a father. “Hold My Liquor” sits at both ends of the Ye Spectrum simultaneously, confidently being both overdramatic and hyper-sexualized, but a lot of the effect feels unearned, as if Kanye is tricking us into caring about his problems. That’s why, when it’s over, you realize “Hold My Liquor” was just a contact high.
J. Cole’s “She Knows” is anything but a high. It features Cole stomping all over an Amber Coffman feature while flaunting the kind of socially aware and misogynistic paradoxes Kanye used to obsess over when he was in Cole’s position. “This is Martin Luther King in the club/Getting dubs, with a bad bitch”, he confides, setting the scene for us, “In his ear sayin’ she down for whatever/In the back of his mind is Coretta.” It’s a line that shouldn’t work but does and points to just how good a salesman Cole can be. “Rich Niggaz” is another great example of this. A fairly typical come-up-from-nothing tale that wraps itself around a weeping guitar, Born Sinner’s obligatory “looking back” track is surprisingly full of life. The anger here is realer than it was on “Villuminati”, and, for a few moments, the boy inside the man is visible. This was an easier win than I could’ve imagined.
Winner: “She Knows”/“Rich Niggaz”
Ye: 3 – Cole: 2
Game 6: “I’m In It” vs. “Forbidden Fruit”
This one is actually J. Cole’s easiest win. “I’m In It” is far and away the weakest song on Yeezus. A wet dream made nightmare by the marring presence of an A$AP-mimicking monster, “I’m In It” is Patrick Bateman without the satirical context, though I’m not sure there’s enough context in the world to make this song palatable.
It’s not just the dispiriting Ye effort that makes J. Cole’s win here so effortless. “Forbidden Fruit”, a standout song on a standout album, is another track that could draw Kanye comparisons, not so much in its lyrical content but more in its utilization of hired help. It also doesn’t hurt that this help is Kendrick Lamar. Like so many great features from Kanye’s past, “Forbidden Fruit” is a song formatted to fit Lamar’s strengths and allow him to flourish. What makes it a great song is Cole’s ability to avoid getting steamrolled by the stark change of direction. And just like that, we’re tied.
Winner: “Forbidden Fruit”
Ye: 3 – Cole: 3
Game 7: “Blood on the Leaves” vs. “Chaining Day”
This may be the biggest blowout in the whole showdown. As if he’s physically trying to drag us from Yeezus’s most openly troubling song, “Blood on the Leaves” opens with the calming, but certainly not settling, sample of Nina Simone’s “Strange Fruit”. The slavery imagery calls back to the darker first half of the album, but when Ye finally shows up, it’s clear the sample is just there for subversion. Similar to the overdramatics of “Hold My Liquor”, “Blood” tries to pass off groupie love as something real, only this time Kanye is able to make you believe in it. When the beat drops and the senses-shattering brass section comes in, you have one of those moments when you realize why we even put up with Kanye in the first place. “Blood” is rife with the limitations Ye has with actually connecting with his audience on an emotional level, but it wins out by proving none of that matters when he can hit you even harder on a visceral level.
Suffering the impossible task of trying to take on the most Kanye moment of a Kanye record is J. Cole’s perfectly enjoyable “Chaining Day”, a song with production that is probably as close to Ye-complex as he will ever get, which is to say not very close at all. Kanye wins with mercy rule in effect.
Winner: “Blood on the Leaves”
Ye: 4 – Cole: 3
Game 8: “Guilt Trip” vs. “Ain’t That Some Shit (Interlude)”/“Crooked Smile”
“Guilt Trip” is probably Yeezus’s lightest track, which is a title that should come with a 47-karot asterisk. At it’s most derivative, “Guilt Trip” sinks as low as “Make Her Say” punchline hunting, but at its best, the uneven song utilizes another strong, narrative expanding cameo, this time from G.O.O.D. Music’s lost son, Kid Cudi. The mere presence of his voice over a flattened bass line gives us shades of the past, pulling us back briefly so that we can be thrown, once again, into the madness.
For the purpose of good competition, we’ll ignore “Ain’t That Some Shit (Interlude)” for now because “Crooked Smile” has much more to offer. With a TLC feature pushing the album into a gear it hasn’t yet reached, J. Cole has to rise to the occasion, and he does it by becoming completely unhinged. Suddenly wonderfully unfocused here, Cole jumps from place to place, from church to jail to his woman’s ear, searching for just the right balance of wit and heart. On “Crooked Smile”, Cole doesn’t have to be an anchor, and his liberated verses thrive, picking him up a surprising win.
Winner: “Crooked Smile”
Ye: 4 – Cole: 4
Game 9: “Send It Up” vs. “Let Nas Down”
Here’s where J. Cole loses it for himself. “Let Nas Down” is Cole flexing his history knowledge, letting us know his influences run deep, but when he gives us the line, “No ID my mentor/Let the story begin”, it’s evident that he’s only doing this to attempt the same “Saving Hip-Hop” song both of his mentors are constantly reinventing. Which is why “Let Nas Down” fails so horribly: it lacks any kind of reinvention. Its reliance on the same type of jazz instrumental Jay-Z used on “D.O.A.” makes it a song about doing something new that doesn’t actually do anything new. With a fairly significant misstep, J. Cole might’ve just handed Kanye the win here. The only thing standing in Kanye’s way is Kanye.
Well, not exactly. “Send It Up” is part Yeezus digression and part showcase for Chicago come-up King L. On My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Kanye asked “The plan was to drink until the pain over/But what’s worse, the pain or the hangover?” Around the time Beenie Man shows up to sing about memories, it’s already clear that “Send It Up” isn’t actually in the present tense. This is what it was like before the hangover. I guess Yeezus has to look back to try and move forward.
Winner: “Send It Up”
Ye: 5 – Cole: 4
Game 10: “Bound 2” vs. “Born Sinner”
It’s not even worth talking about “Born Sinner”, the somewhat underwhelming but typically smoother than smooth title track and closer to J. Cole’s album, because of the song on the other side of this match-up. “Bound 2” is a soul-sampling champion of production excess on an album supposedly about minimalism (at least in terms of production). The final song on an defiantly sludgy album sounds nearly angelic and gives us Kanye trying to purge himself of all his sins. “Bound 2” is unequivocally a confession with lines like, “Maybe we could still make it to the church steps/But first, you gon’ remember how to forget” being the closest thing he’ll ever get to penance. The most hopeful part in all of Yeezus is when Kanye finishes his final verse on “Bound 2” with the words, “Jesus wept”. Here, at the end, there is no more Yeezus, no familiarity with the most high (even if Ye still is a close high). All we have is the man we started with, the brilliant and brilliantly flawed Kanye West, who, for the first time in a long time, sounds exhausted and might just embrace a little change.
Winner: “Bound 2”
Ye: 6 – Cole: 4
Final thoughts: Ok, so I may have rigged the game so that it was all a little closer than it should have been, but there’s no denying that J. Cole’s album is closer in quality to Kanye’s than it has any business being. It’s hard to say whether this fact has to do with Kanye’s acceptance of a minor album as something that’s OK or J. Cole’s rising to the challenge, but I’m pretty sure it’s some of both. Anyway, both are great or very good albums that should keep us satisfied until July 4th.