The J. Cole: 4 Your Eyez Only Tour rolled through Vancouver this July 19th of 2017 – one day later than intended, sure, but when you have tickets to a show consisting of up-and-coming Dreamvillers Ari Lennox, J.I.D. and Bas, star-in-his-own-right Anderson .Paak and headlining hip hop hegemon J. Cole, it’s tough to harbour much of a grudge.
Regrettably, due to a misunderstanding with the Rogers arena ticket staff, I missed the first three headliners. On the plus side, I got to deal with customer service for 45 minutes. When I was finally ticketed and granted admission, my good friend Anderson .Paak was rocking the stage with band in tow – .Paak, of course, acting as frontman from behind his drum kit. The stage was off to one side of the arena – if you’re a hockey fan, you will know it as the place where several goals are surrendered during the 2nd period of Canuck home games. The stage had a simple set-up, with space for a drummer, two guitarists, and a fella on the keys. .Paak played almost exclusively from his sophomore EP Malibu – in this reviewers opinion, one of 2016’s best hip hop efforts – while also giving listeners a sampling of his features (Kaytranada’s “Glowed Up” and Nxworries “Suede”).
I was surprised to be surrounded by quite a few people who were unfamiliar with .Paak but I felt really, really good about myself when I was consistently able to beat Shazam in informing the nice fellas next to me of the songs titles. Life is about the little victories, folks.
As a big .Paak fan who knows each and every one of his songs inside out, it was fun to watch him jazz up his tracks a little with drum riffs and solos, messing with the beats in between bars, and really punching in certain beats or notes that were much flatter on plastic. I danced for the entirety of .Paak’s all-too-short set and, by the end of it, Mission Accomplished – I was burning for some Cole.
While Cole’s live band patiently waited on the stage recently vacated by Anderson .Paak and the .Paakrats (note: no one calls them this), all eyes were on the grand black platform sat directly in the middle of the arena. Rimmed with faux barbed wire, lights, speakers and nothing else, the large matte mat lay in wait for Cole.
J. Cole was led along the concourse towards the stage, being metaphorically carried there by a crashing wave of delighted cheers. Literally, however, he was led there by two costumed employees of the Vancouver Police Department, who had presumably handcuffed the rap star backstage. With our collective help, Cole reached the stage and climbed atop it – but not before being freed from his cuffs.
As someone who has never fallen in love with any of Cole’s albums, I went into this show without the sky-high expectations and unwavering confidence that I might have in anticipation of a Danny Brown or Run the Jewels show. This is not to say anything against J. Cole, but not everyone can be a favourite and for me, Cole has always fallen into the camp of a supreme talent who just doesn’t consistently speak to me. I always found his work a little underwhelming, a little too measured, and a little overstated in the poignancy of his real-life experiences. 4 Your Eyez Only fit right in with this pattern: the album concept is extremely unclear until the very end (at which point it is stated clearly), the source of the narrative voice is, oftentimes, impossible to discern and songs like “Fold Clothes” rely on meaningless lyrics, like “I wanna do the right thing/it’s so much better than the wrong thing”. I really enjoyed 4 Your Eyez Only and I feel as though it stands up favourably amongst Cole’s studio catalogue, but these are just some of the issues that I noticed which kept this album – and, indeed, any Cole album – from being a favourite that I constantly return to. I had seen J. Cole perform once before – a short, unremarkable set, pigeonholed in amongst the deepest hip hop festival lineup ever compiled (Rock the Bells X). Four years and two albums later, I was excited to see how he had developed as a performer.
Cole launched right into the hors d’oeuvres of his most recent album (4 Your Eyez Only), playing its’ first several tracks right off the bat. After a spirited rendition of Deja Vu, Cole thanked the crowd for coming out in droves to the rescheduled show. You could tell he really was appreciative. This was the first of many interactions he had with the crowd. Cole often addressed the crowd to provide the background behind a song and it was through these interactions that Cole most strongly enacted a connection with us. “Ville Mentality” is a song about, in the words of Cole, people who go through life “living in the moment with no thought to tomorrow,”. While the song presents this as a negative mentality that plagues the neighbourhood Cole grew up in, his soliloquy addressed the duplicity of the “Ville Mentality”. While the song chastises those who constantly live in the moment with no regard for their future or that of others, Cole laments the fact that so many of us – himself included – go through life unable to experience the moment for what it is. To drive home this point, Cole mimicked the typical hard-acting hip hop fan, who stands through his favourite song with crossed arms and an ever-so-slightly bobbing head.
“Let’s all live in the moment tonight,” Cole said. Not the aptest advice to a concert reviewer with a weak memory, but I did my best to heed it, anyway.
Cole followed up his plea with a few songs from way back in the Cole World days, but the next real highlight of the show came during the song “Neighbours”. “Neighbours” is a song about the reception Cole received upon buying a house in the suburbs and moving his family out there. His neighbours (one racist lawn-mowing bastard, in particular, he suspects) were suspicious of how a young black man with an unconventional work schedule could afford a house in their neighbourhood and so – again, according to Cole’s suspicious – they tipped off their friendly neighbourhood S.W.A.T. team. Cole played his home security video footage for the crowd on the Jumbotron and alternating cascades of boos and laughter washed across the crowd as he narrated the gross prejudicial actions of the uniformed folks on-screen. Perhaps the biggest reaction of the night came when Cole joked that maybe, “they thought I was one of the Migos. The most poignant part of this speech, though, and the aspect of “Neighbours” that is most crucial to the over-arching narrative of the album, was Cole’s expression of guilt for leaving his past behind. This is what Cole’s most recent album is all about – reconciling the past and the present in a way that pays respect to both of them.
Even when Cole followed “Neighbours” up with a song of his that I don’t particularly like in “Fold Clothes,” he brought enough energy, genuine passion and exhibition to his performance that I couldn’t help but feel it. J. Cole clearly feels a strong connection to his material, which is why, I think, he can get away with being really, really, ridiculously corny at times. In the song “Wet Dreamz,” Cole raps about how, despite fronting as a bonafide sexpert, he “hadn’t been in pussy since the day I came out one”. No one sounds cool rapping about their own mother’s vagina, and I’m sure J. Cole is well aware of that but, by golly, he goes right ahead and does it anyway. And you know what? The audience got into “Wet Dreamz” and sang along to it more so than any other tune. Besides, with all-ages entry, the line “I ain’t never did this before, no” had never before rung so true. Cole’s remarks after “Fold Clothes,” about how he recognizes that a song about doing laundry for your partner is something that a large sect of his fan base simply can’t yet relate to, helped juxtapose the near-universally relatable concept of being an inexperienced, nervous, horribly self-aware sexual being.
For me, the highlight of the show came during the very last song – the song from which Cole’s fourth album and current tour derive their name – “4 Your Eyez Only”. This is the song where Cole provides his listener with the key to understanding the structure of his narrative and where he reveals that he is speaking to his late friend’s daughter through his own voice and through the voice of his late friend. J. Cole’s friend, who died at the age of 22, represents the past – and yet his story is irrevocably intertwined with Cole’s present life, as a father, husband, and grown man who has escaped the trap that swallowed his close friend up.
When all was said and done, J. Cole put on one of the most impassioned and personal hip hop shows I have ever been to. Cole is a skilled lyricist, rapper and songwriter but his devotion to telling his story in a way that is honest and representative was the true stand-out of his performance. J. Cole may have never lived up to his initial billing as heir to the Rockafella throne and he might never live up to the sky-high potential that many people once saw in him, but there is no doubt in my mind that he is one of the most impressive hip hop performers around. If you ever get a chance to see J. Cole live, I highly recommend it.
J. Cole Setlist:
1 – For Whom The Bell Tolls 2 – Immortal 3 – Deja vu 4 – Ville Mentality 5 – Change 6 – Lights Please 7 – Nobody’s Perfect 8 – Can’t Get Enough 9 – Forbidden Fruit 10 – Neighbours 11 – Fold Clothes 12 – She’s Mine, Pt. 2 13 – Love Your 14 – Wet Dreamz 15 – A Tale of 2 Citiez 16 – G.O.M.D. 17 – Power Trip 18 – No Role Modelz 19 – 4 Your Eyez Only