J. Cole plays Spark Arena and seems to have no idea how much his fans love him.
There’s something about rap crowds. It’s a pride in knowing every single lyric of every single song an artist has released, even the old, obscure ones. Especially the old, obscure ones. The real fans were out in full force at Spark Arena on Friday night for J. Cole’s first solo show (after supporting Eminem for his 2014 Rapture event). When Cole hinted that maybe “only four people” would know one of his early songs (‘Lights Please’), the crowd roared as if upset he’d even suggest that they weren’t day one fans. Sure enough, when the first beats came in, the crowd cheered and then proceeded to rap along to every word. The roaming camera stayed on one particular fan in the front row who delivered the first verse flawlessly, earning a shoutout from Cole up on stage.
Once it was established that he was dealing with a crowd of diehards, Cole still couldn’t help but be wary of how familiar everyone was with his work. Perhaps it was all part of the act and a tactic to keep the crowd energy up but it did feel as if he was genuinely unsure how well each song would be received, prefacing more than one track with “I could be wrong, I don’t like to assume shit, but I’d like to assume that if you were there for that song, you might be familiar with this one.” He needn’t have worried. He could’ve stopped rapping at literally any point throughout the 90 minute set and the crowd would’ve carried on without him.
I myself am not a true day one J, Cole fan – though I do strangely know his first album very well. In 2012 my cousin had given me his old phone right when I got a summer job unboxing cones at an ice cream factory. Cole World: The Sideline Story was the only music on it, so I listened to that one album for five weeks straight. But since then, I’ve gotten a new phone and largely forgotten about J. Cole. Attending his show reminded me that I’ve been a fool for the past five years.
Perhaps the only downside of being reintroduced to an artist like J. Cole by attending one of his shows is that now listening to his recent albums for the first time, I’m somewhat disappointed in the lack of intensity. When Cole performs, his energy is huge, bouncing around the stage and delivering each line as if it just came to him. Add to that the crowd hype and it becomes pretty hard to match on a recorded album.
After an impassioned rendition of ‘Neighbours’, Cole explained the backstory to the song. He’d been living in New York for a while and decided to move back home to North Carolina, to a wealthy white neighbourhood. Long story short, his neighbours ended up calling the police and 17 SWAT team members raided his home with guns, looking for drugs. He played the security footage of the raid with some colour commentary that was genuinely funny and which led to the crowd chanting “FTP” (Fuck The Police) repeatedly. Yes people were chanting that.
And that’s what Cole has been able to achieve both in his lyrics and his shows: a sense that he’s just trying to live a good life like everyone else, and that includes making mistakes and learning from them. He makes it so easy to cheer for him. As far as my own learning, that night I learned I need to listen to his music more.
J Cole doesn’t like to assume shit – but he’d be safe in assuming that he just put on one of the best live shows of 2017.
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