Live: J. Cole Brings His Stardust To The Bowery Ballroom


J. Cole
Bowery Ballroom
Tuesday, August 9

Better than: Listening to “Headlines” on repeat. (Or even once.)

It’s not easy being J. Cole. Great expectations have been dumped on him, a steaming pile of hope and hype and hoopla on his shoulders. Bossman Jay-Z shoved him into the spotlight on “A Star is Born”—what’s the opposite of subtle?—in 2009. He was on the cover of XXL‘s Freshmen issue in 2010, back when people still considered OJ Da Juiceman a thing. What has followed has been a series of speed bumps, traffic, and wrong turns in the parking lot that is Roc Nation. Stars may be born, but stars still have to wait in line behind bigger stars.

J. Cole has entire mixtapes of album cuts, yet no album. (His debut, Cole World: The Sideline Story, hits shelves on September 27; people who have heard it say that it exists! Also, that it’s well worth the wait.) His releases have consistently been beautiful, gut-wrenching and clever, cherished keepsakes in an age of quickly forgotten mp3s. It’s too bad that beauty doesn’t matter on the radio.

Wikipedia says that “Work Out,” an oozy slow-burn with a Kanye sample, was the lead single for Cole World, but it might not have been a single at all. There’s no video, and the song’s had no real push. Wikipedia’s not always correct. (A quick second-unreliable-opinion consultation with Yahoo! Answers reveals that it’s played “in a lot of clubs,” though not in New York, and not much on the radio, save for Tampa.) His next (first?) official single, “Can’t Get Enough,” has Trey Songz over a soulful beat, and it’s awesome. True to form, it sounds nothing like what’s on the radio.

People want J. Cole to succeed, but there seems to be a stark difference in who J. Cole is and who his fans want him to be. He is low-key, endlessly likable, friendly. Because of that, people treat his songs like a protective older brother sizing up a sister’s suitors, overly cautious and quickly dismissive. A writer at last night’s show said of “Work Out,” “It’s cool, but it shouldn’t be his single,” which was also the Internet consensus. (People seem to want J. Cole to make straightforward hits a la Drake. In fact, they want him to be Drake—well, a working-class American Drake with an emphasis on lyrics, minus the sadness, and oh yeah, trim the eyebrows. But the pop-ready hooks have to be there. Can’t forget the pop-ready hooks.)

Acting as rapper and his own hypeman, J. Cole is far more active than Jay-Z, his face displaying pure emotion in a way that Drake’s cannot. He is confident, looking audience members directly in the eye. He coos like an R&B singer, but shouts the lyrics to “Work Out,” demanding you to understand his vision. (When that song’s bass dribbled in, the floor turned into a Turntable.FM room, filled with bobbing heads. Either people were being hyperbolic online—shocker—or the raised vocals worked. Probably both.)

Maybe he’s not “J. Cole” yet, but throughout the night, he was J. Cole. Very J. Cole. Some say he lacks personality, but he’s a wonder to watch onstage, looking like he’s about to pinch himself, his face lit by both fluorescent spotlights and genuine joy. During “In the Morning,” he shouts to the ceiling, a smile on his face, his neck breaking the wrong way. It’s been a long road, but he seems so grateful just to be on the journey.

Which is good in a way, because he’s been on tour for what feels like forever. At one point, he said, “We’ve been performing these songs for too long. We need some new shit.” He’s road-tested, professional, especially in contrast to Omen, the one guest he shared the stage with, who had trouble being heard. (A generous and steady-legged J. Cole traded microphones with him, but still managed to have higher levels both times.)

It’s easy to get lost or disgruntled in Jay-Z’s shadow; Memphis Bleek could be (and will be) one hit away his whole career. But J. Cole will probably thrive. He’s no sidekick, he’s no kick bucket. If he doesn’t come to radio, people will demand radio come to him.

Critical bias: My brother and I coaxed J. Cole to sing “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?” once. (Unfortunately, it was cut by the people who edited our MTV interview with him.)

Overheard: “Why are there always hot dogs at these things?”—someone who has been to as many alcohol-sponsored concerts as I have this summer. Seriously, hot dogs have been at every one of these things. Not exactly the “chicken satay and pineapple with spicy peanut sauce” (served with champagne!) at the Jay-Z/Kanye listening session.

Random notebook dump: New York has two problems during the summer: secret shows and bedbugs. There are three or four secret shows in any given week, with no details provided as to time or location until the afternoon of. It makes it very hard to schedule anything! Also, get real, record labels and/or liquor companies: not every secret show (read: Kreayshawn, Ciara) has to be a secret.

Set list:
A Star Is Born
All I Want is You
Grown Simba
Before I’m Gone
It Won’t Be Long
Work Out
Looking for Trouble
Enchanted (with Omen)
Lights Please
In the Morning
Who Dat
Blow Up
Can’t Get Enough