J. Cole Is the Hip-Hop Artist We Need Right Now
Photo by Mitchell Nguyen

J. Cole Is the Hip-Hop Artist We Need Right Now

J. Cole, Anderson .Paak
Toyota Center
August 18, 2017

We live in an era of inaccessible pop stars. Sure, you can follow Taylor Swift on Twitter or check in with Drake via his Twitter page, but to call those outlets micromanaged and marketed within an inch of their social-media life would be an understatement. On the whole, we see what our rock, pop and hip-hop idols want us to see.

So conditioned are we to this that when a pop star attempts to share something of actual substance, we don’t know how to react. How else can you explain someone like Katy Perry – once considered pop royalty – falling so far, so fast, all because she cut her hair and grew a conscience. Are we even interested in pop stars with something to say?

With J. Cole in the fold, the answer certainly appears to be “yes.” The hip-hop artist, born Jermaine Cole, has been an outright phenomenon since breaking onto the scene in 2011. Four albums, all of which debuted at No. 1. Hit singles aplenty. An ear for hooks, and yet, someone who can touch on society’s ills with the best of them. J. Cole, seemingly, has it figured out.

J. Cole Is the Hip-Hop Artist We Need Right Now
Photo by Mitchell Nguyen

His formula appears both simple and noble – be honest with your audience. As much was evident from J. Cole’s rousing two-hour set before a packed house at Toyota Center on Friday night. J. Cole ripped through 20 tracks, mostly a mix of hit singles and tracks from his latest, last year’s phenomenal 4 Your Eyez Only.

J. Cole doesn’t do subtlety. Dude rolled out to center stage Friday night clad in an orange prison jumpsuit, escorted by prison guards who searched him before he took the stage. What followed was part concert, part sermon, part stand-up comedy act.

J. Cole paused for long periods of time between tracks to trace his roots in small town North Carolina, his time in New York City and how returning to his hometown didn’t go nearly as smoothly as he might have imagined. He made one lucky lady’s night by having her rap along to “Lights Please.” He did something that is rare in today’s pop landscape; he engaged with the audience with genuine sincerity. In times like these, when people are divided, J. Cole called on those in the crowd to live in the moment, to dream big, to unify.

He also mixed in some of the finest hip-hop in the game today, including the entirety of his 4 Your Eyez Only. The album really does feature a little bit of everything, from bangers ("Immortal") to socially-conscious tracks (“Neighbors”) to soul-laid-bare tunes (“4 Your Eyez Only”) to tracks that may seem simple but in actuality mean a whole lot more (“Foldin’ Clothes”).

J. Cole Is the Hip-Hop Artist We Need Right Now
Photo by Mitchell Nguyen

These are interesting times we live in, and J. Cole recognizes as much. Hell, he admits he’s just as confused as the rest of us. It’s just nice that, for one warm summer night in Houston, music can do as it was intended – to unify, to speak to us, to truly matter.

So, How Was the Opener?: Was fortunate enough to catch the back half of Anderson. Paak’s side-stage set, and I wasn’t the only one. By the time Paak and his backing bad wrapped up their set, Toyota Center was near capacity. Paak has a certain charisma about him, which probably explains why his record sales continue to climb. In fact, both of his 2016 album releases – Malibu and Yes Lawd! – both debuted inside the top 80 of the Billboard Top 200.

Crowd Surfing: Props to the crowd at Toyota Center on Friday night. They turned out en masse, showed up early and were engaged the whole way through. I’ve both heard of and seen firsthand Houston-area crowds that spend more time on their phones or talking among themselves as opposed to, you know, actually watching the artist they paid to see. Not the case on Friday night; well played, Houston.

Overheard in the Crowd: “Bring on J,” the dude behind me kept repeating. Dude, we were all ready for J. Cole to grace the stage, but halfway through the opener’s set is a bit early, yes?

Throwback Time: The throwback jerseys were in effect, not quite to the point of shows from Future and Chance the Rapper in recent months, but impressive nonetheless. Those we noticed were a Charles Barkley Rockets throwback, a Vince Carter Raptors jersey and a Gary Payton Sonics jersey. Man, those Sonics jerseys were the best back in the day.

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