On Friday, April 8, I attended a hip hop performance by J. Cole at the Charlottesville Pavilion. Though the concert was hosted by University Programs Council Springfest, student turnout was relatively poor on account of the dreary, rainy weather at the outdoor venue. However, there was still a sizable crowd underneath the venue’s massive awning. From my modest experience going to concerts in the past, I had learned that people only get mad about you pushing past them if you stop in front of them. With this knowledge in mind, I determinedly cut through the crowd until I was about 30 feet from the stage with a great view of the show that had already started.
J. Cole, born Jermaine Lamarr Cole, has been rapping for half his life, since the age of 13, and his experience showed. His presentation and style reminded me of that of T.I. when he performed here in Charlottesville a couple years ago, except Cole didn’t need hype men on stage with him to finish his lines. He was very energetic, refusing to stay in one place for very long, and his voice had enough power that I was convinced it would have carried across the crowd without a microphone. The distinct emphasis he placed on many of his lines made it sound as if he almost barked some of his lyrics. While barking lyrics might carry a negative connotation in some contexts, Cole pulled it off in a way that instead conveyed his passion to the audience.
Near the end of his show, J. Cole performed his debut single, Who Dat, an exhibition of bravado for everyone who doubted his rise to fame. The name of the song references a popular battle cry of New Orleans’ football team, “Who dat say dey gonna beat dem Saints,” alluding to Cole questioning what rapper is brave enough to challenge him in a contest of lyricism. After instructing the men in the crowd to menacingly chant “Who Dat” along with him during the chorus, Cole rapped the line “A couple of y’all ain’t took a field trip to the hood.” It reminded me of the “field trip” I took to the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans this past spring break to see the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. That thought soon became a wish that I hadn’t dropped my camera off a balcony overlooking Bourbon Street the night before Mardi Gras so I could take pictures of the show.
Overall, I thought J. Cole’s music was a refreshing departure from the either aloof or insipid rap that currently dominates hip hop culture. In my opinion, most hip hop artists on the radio today fall into one of two groups: rappers who have become so jaded by their fame and fortune that they cease to put true thought into their music because they know they will continue to make money regardless, and artists who force their way into the mainstream by capitalizing on current trends that cater to the lowest common denominator of the American public in terms of taste. J. Cole contributes to contemporary music by breaking both these molds, delivering music that is, for the most part, fresh, witty, and compelling.
Considering that Cole moved to New York and went to college on an academic scholarship while fighting for a record deal, it is no surprise that his music demonstrates both street smarts and intelligence that are impressive for his age. Cole’s gritty yet well-versed persona must have appealed to music mogul, Jay-Z, as the first artist signed to his record label, Roc Nation, allowing Cole to rise from the underground without sacrificing the content of his music. With encouraging prospects for his future, I believe J. Cole can make a very positive impact on contemporary hip hop if he continues unapologetically on this seldom-traveled path.