Not long after delivering the last few bars of icebreaking show opener “Welcome,” J. Cole addressed his eager and ecstatic audience at New York City’s Irving Plaza last night (June 19) with mild, playful caution: “If you came to hear the hits, this is not your night.”
Not surprisingly, nobody seemed to mind in the least. In the two anticipatory hours after the venue opened its doors, it was clear that those who’d hustled and waited outdoors in long, humid, chaotic lines for a chance at the $1 tickets to this concert were among Cole’s biggest fans in the city. Upon entry, many had bolted up the stairs and leapt onto the dance floor facing the stage in celebration, delirious and grateful for access to such a rare–and dizzyingly cheap–opportunity to see the virtuosic Roc Nation signee the same week his sophomore effort Born Sinner dropped.
For more than an hour, Cole kept his word and rewarded the crowd with surprises and plenty of fan favorites. Far from the sort of set one might experience at a summertime radio station festival or multi-artist arena tour, the 28-year old rapper dug deep into his catalog to showcase a selection of material from both his albums and mixtapes alike. Cole even openly solicited song requests at multiple opportunities, rejecting some not for lack of interest, but for lack of the actual music files on his DJ’s hard drive. “That’s too old!” he countered to one deep cuts fan near the front.
Now halfway through his Dollar And A Dream Tour, Cole apologized frequently and unnecessarily, his characteristic slick voice having taken on slight hoarseness and grit. Dressed in a plain black tee, military camouflage pants, and, of course, a chain, he pleaded, “I need y’all to go word for word.” The audience, not the least bit modest, shouted his verses right back at him in righteous unison during tracks like “Lights Please” and “Sideline Story.”
While the Gold-certified debut Cole World comprised a fair share of what his five-piece backing band–a guitarist, two keyboard players, a drummer, and a DJ–performed, Cole also led his crew through lively renditions of cuts from Friday Night Lights, and The Warm Up including “Before I’m Gone,” “Dead Presidents II” and “Dolla And A Dream.” One particular highlight of these riotously received mixtape picks was “Chris Tucker,” a bubbling track still sounding fresh off this past April’s Truly Yours 2 EP.
While this was obviously Cole’s show, he occasionally shared the spotlight with a handful of others. Towards the end of “Nobody’s Perfect,” his guitarist began soloing over the backing beat, prompting the smirking punchline, “This is why you gotta have a white boy in the band!” Earlier, Bas, the Queens rapper affiliated with Cole’s Dreamville imprint, took to the stage to perform “Lit” from his own Quarter Water Raised Me Vol. II tape. Excitedly joining his signee on the chorus, Cole subsequently delivered his own verse from the impressive track.
Though Cole deliberately limited the amount of Born Sinner material in the set, he made sure to squeeze in the two pre-release singles “Power Trip” and “Crooked Smile.” Though neither Miguel nor the surviving members of TLC were present, their presence on those respective tracks was undeniably felt as the venue shook with the reverberation of their catchy choruses and hooks. As the band played an extended version of the latter track, Cole stepped off the stage to shake hands and autograph CDs . From the V.I.P. balcony above, one could see none other than Jay-Z widely smiling down upon his hand-picked artist.
-Gary Suarez, NYC