Because of some quirk in ticketing, there was almost nobody on the floor to see J. Cole on Saturday night. All the seats were full at John Paul Jones Arena, where the UVA basketball team plays. But down on the floor, there was this vast expanse of open space. Maybe a third of the standing-room area was full. This was the University of Virginia’s welcome-week concert, and the building was full of incoming college freshman who were very, very excited to be where they were. And a couple of songs into his set, J. Cole wondered aloud if maybe we could get a few more people down on the floor. He took care to make it clear that he didn’t want a stampede, but a stampede is what he got anyway. All the kids in the stands flooded the floor. Cole tried to cut the crowd off after maybe 30 seconds, but kids kept streaming down. And while Cole rapped his lost-virginity reverie “Wet Dreamz,” the space was claustrophobically, dangerously full. It didn’t last. The venue’s security went around the floor, checking everyone’s wristbands and sending everyone who wasn’t supposed to be there back to their seats. Within 15 minutes, the floor was just as empty as it had been at the start of the show. And that’s J. Cole for you. He seems like a big change, like a democratizing harbinger who’s here to change the face of rap music. And he ultimately changes nothing.
J. Cole went platinum with no features. That’s the meme. And while we might disagree over how much a feat like this actually means — whether it really does mean Cole is on a level of artistry that his peers can’t approach — it’s pretty fucking impressive on its own merits. Cole released 2014 Forest Hills Drive, named after the North Carolina house where he grew up, at the tail end of 2014, and it got a platinum certification in June of last year. That sort of thing is happening less and less often with rap albums these days, even with the RIAA rejiggering its rules around streaming services. The album has no guest rappers and no guest singers, and Cole himself produced or co-produced nearly all of its songs. This year, Cole rode that album to festival-headliner status, getting top billing at Bonnaroo and Lollapalooza and Outside Lands. By any metric, he’s one of the most popular rappers in the world right now. And when you take away the grandfathered-in greats like Eminem and Jay Z, both of whom are essentially semi-retired now, Cole could arguably be at #2 on that list, behind Drake and nobody else. I don’t get it. I never did.
J. Cole is a perfectly capable, competent rapper who has never really said anything that interested me. His voice just sort of fades into the background, only invading my consciousness when he says something unforgivably stupid, like the “dick so big it’s like a foot up in your mouth” line that essentially ruined Jeremih’s otherwise sublime “Planez.” But when I actually listen hard enough, most of what I hear is honor-student try-hardisms, and it occasionally veers into grade-grubbing, as on the old-rapper olive branch “Let Nas Down.” Cole seems desperate to be taken seriously, to be counted among the all-time greats. Sprite used his lyrics in a recent ad campaign, alongside those of 2Pac and Missy Elliott, and it almost feels like his entire career has been leading up to that moment, like he’d take that as real validation.
Cole never gets lost in his music. He thinks hard about every line. There’s a genuine emotion in there; he’s got a pretty good blues warble when he sings. But there’s also a calculated sense of positioning. He’s serious, and he pounds that nail again and again, to the point where it can veer into outright clueless offensiveness. (The stuff about wanting a real woman on “No Role Modelz” is more misogynistic than anything I’ve ever heard on a Rae Sremmurd record.) But there’s clearly something there; a rapper can’t ascend to Cole’s rarefied level just through real hip-hop posturing. And that’s why I spent my Saturday night in an arena full of teenagers, kids closer to my kids’ age than to mine, when I could’ve been home absorbing the just-released Blonde or watching the best wrestling show of the year on live TV. I had to figure it out.
And watching Cole perform, I got it. Sort of. He looks like a star — handsome, aloof, utterly confident in his ability to rock an arena full of hyped-up kids. Cole is the rare rapper who can perform with a live band where the live band actually adds things to the show, rather than just cluttering up the precise beats. His records have a sort of shaggy session-musician lope to them anyway, and his touring band fleshes them out, making them sound thicker. I wonder what his relationship with his band members is like. He gives all of them, including his DJ, room to solo, but he also keeps them in shadow at the back of the stage. The only person clearly visible onstage during a J. Cole show is J. Cole. (His live show has no features.) His songs are narrative-heavy, but his arrangements are put together with big crowds in mind. “A Tale Of 2 Citiez” might be about a robbery, but it’s also an ideal opener, its “hands in the air now” chorus going from a statement of threat to an invitation to the crowd. It makes sense that he’s playing arenas, that he’s headlining festivals. In big spaces like that, Cole fits. He’s good at his job.
And yet. I got bored watching Cole, especially once the unexpected drama of the floor-rush ended. The same things that drag down Cole’s records — the sedate production, the aggressive everyman projecting, the insistence on his own greatness, the crucial lack of energy — are there in his live show, too. Cole’s live show is technically good in every way. He always hits his marks. He never forgets his lines. He and his band are clearly comfortable with one another. They’ve rehearsed. But most of the best live shows I’ve ever seen have been quick bursts of unpredictable lightning-crackle, and Cole is not that. (They’ve also been short, and that’s not Cole, either. Other than the Roots, who are a whole other thing, nearly every great live rap show I’ve ever seen has been around an hour or less, and Cole shows just drag on.) But this is where matters of personal taste come in. The things that I look for in rappers — the freaky energy, the overwhelming force of personality, the jags of nonsense originality — are not what Cole offers. He’s very good at what he does, and what he does is not for me.