After spending years paying his dues and building on his fame, J. Cole has finally reached that level where not only can he perform in large arenas like the Air Canada Centre, but his demand is so high that he can do two stadium shows in Toronto on the same tour. In a busy week for Toronto Hip-Hop heads that included Kendrick Lamar also having his very first headlining show at the ACC, and veterans Method Man & Redman headlining Toronto’s Festival of Beer, J. Cole would be hitting the ACC on two back-to-back nights.
Reaching this level has been a long time coming for J. Cole, as he’s performed in several smaller venues in Toronto over the years. He’s rocked the Sound Academy before it was renamed to Rebel Nightclub, the revered Massey Hall while promoting just his second major-label album, and even after that success came back for a free show in Roundhouse Park and a $1 guerilla-style show at a tiny art gallery. His most recent time in Toronto was a co-headlining spot on Drake’s 2015 OVO Fest, which he had to cut short due to bad weather. He’s now on tour for his fourth major-label album, 4 Your Eyez Only, which may very well be his most thematically focused project yet.
After a lot of jumping and moshing with Method Man & Redman the previous night, J. Cole’s more mellow style of Hip-Hop would be an appreciated rest. It’s a running joke Hip-Hop fans can often find in online forums or the comments section on articles/videos where Cole’s music can get so mellow that it will put you to sleep, and he seems to be fully aware and appreciative of this with the way he set up the layout for this tour. Rather than looking like a live party setting, it felt more corporate, with assigned seating on the floor level surrounding the stage in the center of the arena. There was also a second stage on the far end where Cole’s band would eventually set up, but first the opening performers would take turns rocking it.
The opening acts had it rough, as the seating directly in front of their stage was facing away from them and towards the empty main stage. This second show was also far from sold out, and so there were a lot of empty seats as Dreamville artist Ari Lennox sang a pretty song about having sex in the back of a car. Cole brought some more artists signed to his Dreamville label to open for him, with J.I.D and Bas each getting short 20-minute sets. J.I.D rocked some jams off his 2017 debut album The Never Story, while Bas brought out another Dreamville artist, Cozz, as a surprise during his set.
The final opener would be an Aftermath artist who’s really blown up over the past couple years, Anderson .Paak along with his band The Free Nationals. After seeing him headline the 2016 Manifesto Festival, he’s since released a new album with the group NxWorries called Yes Lawd!, and one can assume he’s working on his first Aftermath album as the label’s newest signee. With a half hour set, he couldn’t dive as deep into his catalogue as the last time I saw him perform, but he still hit some of my favourites off of 2016’s Malibu like “Am I Wrong” and “Come Down.” He also made sure to showcase all his talent to the slowly growing ACC crowd, switching seamlessly between singing as the band’s frontman to singing while playing the drums.
By the time Anderson .Paak & The Free Nationals wrapped up their set, the floor seats were completely packed, and the upper level was about as full as it was going to be. The jumbo screen put the spotlight on fans in the crowd as we waited for the band to get set up, and soon J. Cole would make his entrance to the center stage, dressed in a jumpsuit and being escorted by security. He was fully in-character and was ready to dive into the new album, with his band in the dark on the side stage and the main stage having nothing but himself, a chair and a microphone stand.
J. Cole started performing the new album in order of the track list, diving right into “For Whom The Bell Tolls” as soon as he got on stage. He then paused to introduce himself the same way he’s been introducing himself to crowds of all sizes over the past decade: “I go by the name of J. Cole, Cole World!” This moment just felt special seeing him say that at the ACC, the exact same way he’s said it at smaller venues. He continued with the more energetic tracks from 4 Your Eyez Only, getting the crowd to wave their arms and bob their heads to “Immortal” and “Deja Vu” before mellowing out with a long performance of “Ville Mentality.”
He performed the entire song, crooning on the hook before taking some time to explain the importance of what he’s saying on the song – how having a short-term mentality prevents you from forming & achieving goals but lets you have more feeling for every moment you live. He also acknowledged that his singing on the song is “questionable,” but used that as a way to encourage the crowd to sing with him for a second performance of the song, getting everyone to sing every chorus.
Next, J. Cole brought back Ari Lennox, as she joined him on stage to do her guest vocals on “Change.” Up to this point, Cole had been sticking to the 4 Your Eyez Only track list, getting through about half of the album before pausing to acknowledge that he wanted to perform the entire album from beginning to end. He also wanted to slide in a few throwbacks here and there, and so he looked through the crowd to find him a diehard fan who would know the words to any throwback he pulled out of his catalogue. He’d go on to perform the classic “Lights Please,” with all the big screens showing the chosen fan in the crowd rapping/lip syncing along with Cole.
Cole then continued to rock a couple more throwbacks off that first Cole World: The Sideline Story album, with “Nobody’s Perfect” and “Can’t Get Enough,” before slowly getting back to the new tunes. One part of this tour that’s been going viral was up next, as Cole performed the Born Sinner track “Forbidden Fruit,” just doing enough of the hook for us to catch the beat, then flipping the instrumental in reverse so that it turned into the new joint “Neighbors.” Everyone got turned up for one of the more catchy songs on the album, and then Cole gave us all a laugh as he showed us security camera footage of the real life story of what the song was about: how he moved into a new house after his last tour, and a SWAT team raided his house because the neighbors may have been racist.
Things quickly flipped back to a positive note as Cole got into the simple but sweet “Foldin Clothes.” He acknowledged that a lot of his fans won’t appreciate these songs yet if they’re too young to understand mature relationships, and continued on into soft lullaby “She’s Mine.” Songs like this are why every fan had a seat to sit in, as there’s nothing to do but sit back, watch the family videos on the jumbo screens and appreciate the feels. The mellow vibes continued as Cole decided he wanted to make up for cutting his last show short, and performed several tracks off of 2014 Forest Hills Drive starting with “Love Yourz,” getting the crowd to light up their cell phones and lighters.
After mellowing out, Cole got everyone out of their seats and dancing again as he gradually turned up the tempo with every song he performed, going from the groovy “Wet Dreamz” to the certified head-nodder “A Tale Of 2 Citiez,” to the bouncy “G.O.M.D.” He then performed the only full song he’d do off Born Sinner for the evening, “Power Trip,” getting the crowd to all sing Miguel’s guest vocals on the 2013 hit. With the crowd energized again, Cole got everyone singing along to the catchy “No Role Modelz,” with the screens showing different fans in the crowd moving to the song.
It was a nice segment of hits from his previous two albums, but with those out of the way, it was time to close the show with the title track off the new album. Cole straight up told the crowd this would be the last song with no encore, and gave fans a chance to leave early, as he’s fully aware the last song on this album is an 8-minute long, slow-paced story breaking down the album’s entire concept. I don’t think anyone left though, as fans chilled and listened to Cole rap through those heartbreaking verses, lighting up their cell phones one last time.
It’s been really cool seeing J. Cole’s style evolve up to this point. His hair has gotten wavier, but his music and his performances have become so focused and precise with where he wants to take it. This tour felt like it must have been tougher for him to do because the new album is so depressing once you know the concept behind it, and it seems more difficult to get crowds to emphasize with these emotions when they likely just want to turn up and party. Cole is really great at interacting with the crowd though, and at least getting them close to that train of thought needed to appreciate the song. It’s another chapter in what’s turning out to be a lengthy and interesting career for J. Cole.
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