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J. Cole’s Everyman Persona Is Easier to Believe in Concert

NEW YORK, NY - AUGUST 01: (EDITORS NOTE: Image has been converted to black and white.) American hip-hop artist J. Cole performs at Barclays Center of Brooklyn on August 1, 2017 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. (Photo by Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images)

Like him or not, J. Cole resonates with Generation Y. His shortcomings, which include cursory wokeness and stillborn punchlines, don’t always overwhelm his greatest strengths: economic delivery and a reliable ear for hooks. His forward-facing consciousness earns him a lot of good will, too: J. Cole made a dweeby song about losing your virginity, but he also spent a day visiting San Quentin inmates earlier this week.

His biggest weapon, however, is his sincerity. His 4 Your Eyez Only tour is specifically set up to emphasize that quality, as evidenced at his Barclays Center show in Brooklyn on Wednesday night. Our protagonist J. Cole, dressed in orange prison jumpsuit, begins the show by making his way through the floor seats to the center stage as he’s escorted by guards. The platform is bordered by barbed wire and clusters of surveillance cameras. From this prison, J. Cole launches with album opener “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” a song about his struggle for hope.

When frozen for posterity on Instagram, the scene has a theatrical gravitas, but it becomes more of a minor subtext that haunts the show: It’s a joyous respite from the oppressive systems experienced everyday. When Cole runs through hits like “Nobody’s Perfect” and “Power Trip,” the lights turn magenta and blue, livening up the dreariness of the prison intro. The colored lights narrow and whiten for the 4 Your Eyez Only cuts. For an album focused on a slain friend, J. Cole’s own mortality, and paternal fears, the mood becomes meditative. 

4 Your Eyez Only’s more subdued material was met with more of an enthusiastic welcome than a ruckus. “Neighbors”—a song about a neighbor who got J. Cole’s home swatted after alleging it was a drug house—got the biggest applause, with a large portion of the audience chanting along to the hook’s resigned angst. J. Cole was far from sullen, though: It was his realistic joviality that gave his hour-and-a-half set its spark.

He extended “Neighbors” to add Larry David-esque humor (“In general, neighbors are fake relationships,” he said over an instrumental) and sardonically commentate on the unjust raid as it played on the big screen (“No nigga, it’s the fucking outside, you idiot,” he quipped as a SWAT cop kicked his way out the back door). And yes, J. Cole is aware how ridiculous it may seem to make “Foldin Clothes,” a song called about doing your laundry: He told the 15 or 16-year-olds in the crowd that they, too, will appreciate the little things when they grow-up.

My main issue with J. Cole has been his insistence on rapping about how you, the listener, ought to feel, rather than bringing a specific point-of-view. His socially conscious critiques are well-intended, but they often lack bite. In concert, however, he delivered his truisms with a wink, making him easier to root for. Affable Cole consistently showed up throughout the night, in between his spirited performances. Near the show’s start, he mocked the typical urban New Yorkers’ cool and imitated their stance—the skeptical lean and the unmoved shoulder cross. He also playfully chided another audience member for taking a selfie. His on-stage persona is that of the shaggy everman; it’s a tie between him and Chance the Rapper for Most Dappable Rapper.

That ease of demeanor came across throughout the show, and the occasional stuffiness of his records might benefit if he shifted his shoulders a bit more in the booth. If he doesn’t, J. Cole will still be fine. The night’s loudest cheers belonged to when the floor seats turned magenta, and the wistful Family Circle sample started playing. “Wet Dreamz” started, and suddenly most of the arena was rapping about losing your virginity. Such is the bizarre but real power of Cole.