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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