Live Review: J. Cole at Koko, January 9th 2011

Hype is a dangerous thing. The first act signed to Jay-Z’s Roc Nation imprint, J. Cole (née Jermaine Lamarr Cole) shouldered the hopes and expectations of one of the biggest names in the business, stepping out onto a gilded platform large enough to launch any talent; Mr. Beyoncé didn’t join the label business to shore up half-baked rappers, however. If the signing of young Willow Smith wasn’t proof enough, J. Cole’s lyrical smarts are the confirmation.

Since being signed, his journey has taken an unusual turn. Cole’s rise has been anything but textbook; four years and three mixtapes into his career, there is no official date set for the release of his mysterious debut album. High profile cameos continue, whilst supporting tours roll on (this date coming amidst a European jaunt supporting Drake, the last major rap breakthrough).

Cole is anything but anonymous, however; for this, his first major bow in the UK, he played to a sold out Koko, full to its 1500 capacity. The crowd intensified during DJ Semtex’ warm-up set, bouncing jeers from the vaulted ceilings during Nicki Minaj’s verses, or brap’ing to Lethal Bizzle’s ‘Pow’.

The OG crowd were hard-core, delivering a less than warm welcome for support act Maxsta, who turned in a sub-par performance that only accentuated the divide in quality between the some of the UK’s grime MCs and a man who is ostensibly one of US rap’s best lyricists. He also had numerous hype-men, a notable (and welcome) omission during J. Cole’s set.

Prefacing the main event, Cole spoke at length about the importance of all the fans who were ahead of the curve, and there to see him alone. He returned the favour; for a rap show, the set-list stretched for a lengthy 90 minutes, taking in the best of his material from mixtapes The Come Up, The Warm Up and most recently, Friday Night Lights. The remainder of the set was fleshed out with his best featuring spots to date.

Little is known about the album, beyond the fact that Cole has been taking production duties into his own hands (as he always has done). The closest he got to this at Koko was a brief stint working the keys for ‘Lights Please’. For the remainder of the set, backing duties were left to two keyboard players and DJ Beat, who had their moment during a beat-juggling breakdown.

These skills, alongside an understated singing ability, make him a triple threat; the only thing lacking was a freestyle section, but a minute of digging on YouTube provides the goods we are looking for. The innovations continued, stripping back to acapella for some of his best verses, or unleashing a Notorious B.I.G. ‘Hypnotize’ instrumental for the breakdown of ‘Who Dat’ – “So anything you can do, I can do better/And any chick you can screw, I can get wetter.”

Talking about his past on ‘Dollar And A Dream’, Cole bent the truth somewhat; concerning his move to New York City to follow his dream with “a single dollar to my name”, the truth says that the move was in fact supported by an academic scholarship at St. John’s University. Indeed, his early education in Fayetteville, North Carolina took place at one of America’s best high-schools. Cole is a scholar.

Semtex spoke about this being a “legendary” show in his introduction, as you would expect. That word does strike a chord, however; how many hip hop artists are able to sell out a large venue on alien territory, before releasing any material? Reaching out to the crowd for his encore, one line stood out: “Never say I’m better than Hov, but I’m the closest one“. If ‘Monster’ and ‘H.A.M.’ say anything about the aging fortunes of Jay-Z, one might say the pupil has outgrown the master.

Will Hines

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Jessie J – ‘Do It Like A Dude’: A Thesis

Ok so I know that we’re a bit late on this, but I don’t care. What is music’s obsession with the current all about, eh? I’m going to start by saying this; I actually quite like this song, I think it’s a pretty good slab of pop. Good, not great.

The thing about it is though, it’s just ridiculous. Not in a kind of Lady Gaga ridiculous pop music style either; it’s on a whole new level of ridiculousness.

The first question that this track raises is quite why exactly a reasonably attractive woman like Jessie J would want to “Do it like a dude”? I don’t mean this in a sexist way, quite the opposite. At first listen this track could be taken as some kind of statement of equality; “look at me I’m a woman and I can do it just as good as all of you guys.” This is a sentiment that would make more sense if she was in the male dominated rap scene that the song seems to attempt to reference, but in the pop scene that this song so obviously belongs to it’s the females who dominate. Surely all us guys should be aspiring to “Do it like a Dudette” as far as pop music goes.

The next point I want to raise about this song stems from the video. I don’t even believe that Jessie J can, or even wants to, do it like a dude. Throughout the video she oozes femininity – well the modern sense of femininity at least – as she gyrates around grabbing her crotch. Rather I think that this song is a great pastiche of the type of boys you expect the character of Jessie J to be hanging with. I say character because I seriously doubt that the portrayal of her in the video is the real her. Not that I have a problem with that. Pop music is all a great act, a story, something to buy into, a release from mundanity. That’s why it’s brilliant.

I started the review by saying that the whole song is ridiculous. I don’t think that’s unintentional. As far as I can see the whole song exists to highlight, in a comical kind of way, how ridiculous “dudes” – more in attitude than in gender – actually are. Let’s take a look at some of the lyrics; “Boom, boom, pull me a beer, no pretty drinks, I’m a guy out here.” This is possibly my favourite line in the whole song, it can’t be serious, it just can’t. It’s got to be a dig at “dudes’” narrow minded approach to masculinity: the “I’m a man, gimme a beer” attitude. (Because lets face it; who doesn’t, even if only in secret, love a mojito?) What about this “Rollin’ rollin’ rollin’ rollin’ money like a pimp, My B I T C H’s on my d*ck like this”. Let’s not forget Jessie J is a woman, either she has some serious issues or she’s taking the piss and let’s face it the kind of artists she’s laughing at set themselves up for it. Think Usher, with all his come to daddy nonsense. At times, most notably when Jessie directly addresses “boys” she changes character. The most interesting of these is when she sings “Dirty dirty dirty dirty dirty dirty sucka, you think I can’t get hurt like you, you motherf*ck*r.” It seems like here she is addressing the Dude character that she is playing in the rest of the song, it can’t help but lead me to think, who is this song about? Who has actually behaved like the dude she is portraying and hurt her enough for her to write a parody song about them?

Put into that context the song all seems to make more sense, yeah it’s a dig at dudes, but it’s brilliantly worked. Sure mental, and bizarre, (just take a look at all the weird phallic imagery in the video, not least right at the start when it appears as though a penis is being cut in half?!) but pretty great.

The cutting of the penis is a great reflection of what I think Jessie J is really trying to do in this song, bring down the dude.

Tom Riste-Smith

Live Review: Gonjasufi at Rhythm Factory, December 9th 2010

Forget all that Josh Homme, Arctic Monkeys desert rock stuff; Gonjasufi is the desert, sand runs in his veins. How do I know this? Simple: He lives in a cave, in the Mojave Desert on the outskirts of LA, but he’s only ventured onto the strip once!

Ok so I made a bit of that up. He probably doesn’t live in a cave, but that’s the great thing about Gonjasufi and his story; it’s got just enough of the mad and the mystery to let your imagination run, and let’s face it who doesn’t like a good rock and roll legend? Legend in the fairy tale sense that is, I think I’ll save judgement on the legend status until after the show.

By the time I turned up the main room was packed, there was anticipation in the air. The kind of anticipation that only comes from an audience buzzing, in the knowledge that this is a one off; they are the chosen few who get to witness the special “Live Show”. On to the stage stepped a man, with a tape recorder no less. After a quick nod to the sound man he went into some elaborate mime work, praying to the crowd, a waft of frankincense wouldn’t have felt out of place. The tape started to play, bursting the sounds of ‘Bharatanatyam’, the album’s introduction. Right about now I’m thinking “this is special”. From there sadly I think the whole experience went downhill, what looked set to be a show deteriorated into essentially just a gig. That sounds like a strange thing to say, sure I can appreciate that, but the songs and the performance bore no relation to the album. The set-up, with bass, drums, guitar, tried to strip the songs back to a more rock orientated core, an odd decision possibly for an artist whose body of work is based more on hip-hop and African influences.

The set was all improvised intros and punk guitar riffs, the songs bearing no relation to their recorded counterparts. Let’s take a second here to look at a couple of ideas. The first is general, there is of course the school of thought that a song is never finished, that it’s always a work in progress evolving as its performer does, a recording being just a snapshot in time. Sounds good sure, but not for an artist who only has one barely toured album. The second is this: that in the case of Gonjasufi it’s the album which is a mis-representation of him, being over-produced by the likes of Gaslamp Killer and Flying Lotus. This is possibly alluded to in the album title; A Sufi and A Killer. Gonjasufi and Gaslamp Killer perhaps?

Right; now I’m going to lay it down, neither of these arguments holds with me. With just one album out – that album is the reason people are here – it’s that body of work that has gotten people interested in Gonjasufi, that’s gotten people to buy tickets and come down to the show, no one is here because they think “ahh Gonjasufi is back, I wonder what he’s up to?” Some artists are at that stage in their career, Gonjasufi may well be there himself in a few albums time, but my point is he’s not there yet!

There was quite a lot of crowd interaction throughout the gig, with Gonjasufi constantly asking what people wanted to hear, the resounding answer always ‘Cowboys and Indians’. Sadly what people were here to hear and experience as I’ve already mentioned didn’t seem to match up with what the band on the stage were there to play. In the same way as all the sounds and style that brought the crowd here were omitted from the set, so too was the song everyone was calling for. Why? Who knows?

The end of the set was a big improvement on the rest, the more interesting sounds came out and Gonjasufi’s undeniably incredible voice came to the fore, but it was too little too late. The whole thing seemed a bit self indulgent to me. Personally it wasn’t really what I wanted to see, I’m sure I’ve made that pretty clear, but it was enjoyable nonetheless. Gonjasufi isn’t an artist you just stumble upon, for most people it takes years of accumulating musical tastes to appreciate his style, it’s not the kind of gig you see loads of sweaty teenagers at. The problem with that is that everyone in the room will have taken a different musical journey to get there. People like me who come at it from a more rock-based background can kind of appreciate it, but it definitely doesn’t work for everyone in the room.

There is a massive epidemic in music at the moment, which owes a lot to the 90’s dominance of guitar and rock bands, of a “live show” consisting of guitar, bass, drums et al. This is a lingering “tradition” that it appears that many of the new innovative artists coming through now appear to be struggling to work within. Until people start to have a serious re-think about what it can mean to be a “live show” reviews like this will continue to be written. Reviewers will continue to say that the gigs were ok, but just a bit dull. Gonjasufi is an interesting guy and for as long as he keeps producing interesting records I’ll keep listening, but until he can work out how to give people what they want live he has a big gaping hole in his arsenal.

Tom Riste-Smith