Live: J. Cole Takes Control Of His World At Roseland


J. Cole
Roseland Ballroom
Sunday, September 25

Better than: Rolling your pennies for a rainy day.

A dollar bill doesn’t go very far in this city, but last night it bought a ticket to see J. Cole come into his own. A Dollar & A Dream, dubbed in honor of the rapper’s three songs of the same name, was part celebration for release of his debut Cole World: The Sideline Story (in stores Tuesday), part opportunity for his loyalists to see him play without maxing out their parents’ credit cards. An overwhelmingly young crowd—many of whom seemed to be students at Cole’s Queens alma mater, St. John’s University—filled Roseland to witness a show with no guest stars, no hypeman, and no scantily clad dancers. Instead, Cole captivated the rapt audience with the help of two keyboardists and the impressive, yet not overbearing turntable skills of DJ Dummy.

Cole, wearing a cast on his foot, drew from mixtapes, guest verses (Miguel’s “All I Want Is You,” Jay-Z’s “A Star Is Born”), and his forthcoming debut during the two-hour set. The crowd showed its fervor (and penchant for downloading leaks) by singing along verbatim to “Cole World” and the creamy, 90s-inspired “Nobody’s Perfect,” both of which appear on the not-officially-released album. He seemed keenly aware of potential piracy issues and implored the audience several times to physically (yes, he said physically) purchase his debut, but for someone who has earned his stripes thanks in large part to the support of the blogosphere, he had little choice but to roll with the punches. After all, there are far worse things in a neophyte rapper’s career than hundreds of people voraciously downing your music and then regurgitating it back to you word-for-word.

Handsome and brimming with North Carolina charm, Cole has always been popular with the ladies; he played well to this audience throughout the set with fun, sexually charged cuts like the infectiously bouncy “Can’t Get Enough” and “Work Out.” The latter contains an interpolation of Kanye West’s “The New Workout Plan” and Paula Abdul’s “Straight Up” that inspired quite a few singalongs; Cole maintained a crucial balance here, injecting introspection to balance out the lightheartedness without weighing down the set. At one point he took to the keyboard and played a stripped-down, abridged version of the thought-provoking “Lights Please.”

There was one million-dollar question last night, as there are during quite a few New York hip-hop shows: Would Jay-Z take the stage? Gossipmongers verified that Mr. Carter was in the building—but only as a spectator, a profound move for the hip-hop mentor. When the young rapper threw his hands up at the end of the set in the signature Roc-A-Fella diamond gesture, it was clear that the torch had been passed; the stage belonged to J. Cole alone, just like it should have been.

Critical bias: I’m racking up the J. Cole frequent fan mileage; this is the fourth event of his that I’ve attended in the last month or so.

Overheard: “This some new shit! How y’all know that shit already?”—J. Cole questioning how his fans knew the song “Cole World” lyric-for-lyric prior to official release.

Random notebook dump: I’d happily pay more than $1 to see Paula Abdul and J. Cole perform a mash-up of “Straight Up” and “Work Out.”

Set list:
Looking for Trouble
Grown Simba
Cole World
Before I’m Gone
A Star Is Born
All I Want Is You
God’s Gift
Mr. Nice Watch
Work Out
You Got It
Lights Please
In The Morning
Can’t Get Enough
Who Dat
Blow Up
I Get Up
Nobody’s Perfect