Last weekend, the multi-talented rapper J.Cole came to perform in Amsterdam as part of his ‘What Dreams May Come’ tour. Excitement and anticipation was high. His most recent album ‘Born Sinner’ received critical acclaim, peaking at number two on the BillBoard 200, selling only 30,000 copies less than Kanye’s ‘Yeezus’. Despite this, his stage performance left much to be desired.
To kick off the show, a large projection of a pseudo news report of him in a coma after a violent car crash was shown to the audience. But then the stage unveiled, and lo and behold, J. Cole presented himself at the top of the stage as if in a trance, not knowing whether he had arrived in heaven or hell. Reflecting on the theme of ‘Born Sinner’, the artist was in character for most of the night as if he was searching for a way out of this dream like state. Dressed ominously in all black with an impressive diamond necklace, J. Cole opened the show fittingly with ‘Trouble’. The emphatic chorus was sung effectively by the two female backing singers who brought the theme to life. Vivid colliding snake bodies provided the perfect backdrop to the song ‘Land of the Snakes’.
Two songs in, he announced to his fans that this evening was a ‘journey’.
‘I’ve been doing these shows for four years but tonight is different’ he declared. ‘When you feel like you’re on top of the fucking world and you have everything you want. It’s funny how that shit can come crashing down before your very eyes.’
With his audience in a state of relational catharsis, a dramatic electric guitar solo played as he ran across the stage for the impressive ‘Blow Up.’ After performing this and ‘Work Out,’ a personal favourite of mine, he confessed that he had been drinking too much Hennessey back stage. Personally, this seemed like a marketing plug than anything genuine. He didn’t appear to be drunk and it was hardly a tribute of respect to his paying fans. For me, it didn’t really work.
Next, the song ‘She Knows’ played and managed to captivate the audience getting the crowd clapping for the build up. This momentum was sustained by the acclaimed ‘Forbidden Fruit’ which features the renowned Kendrick Lamar. Just as the crowd were getting into the swing of things, he brought out his friend and fellow signee, Bas. For a while, they talked about the car accident which left the audience confused. Taking advantage of Amsterdam’s leniency on cannabis, Bas proceeded to light up a joint on stage before they both performed ‘Lit’. After Bas left the stage, J. Cole utilised the peaks and troughs of his set list with the songs ‘Rich Niggaz’, an acapella from his Friday Night Lights mixtape and ‘In the Morning’. However, this came crashing down when he shouted out his Philadelphia based band. The piano solo was too quiet, the guitar solo was too slow and the backing singers were out of pitch. Plus, the DJ’s scratched too fast for the sound to be enjoyable.
In order to regain the confidence of the crowd, Cole asked them to request their favourite songs. Again, this went on for too long and we quickly became frustrated. Thankfully, this mishap was somewhat reconciled by him performing my favourite track: ‘Let Nas Down’. Unfortunately, he didn’t re-tell the story behind the track nor did he mention anything about his relationship with rap prophet NAS. He had done this in previous live performances. On the song, the saxophones really bring the track to life, so it was a shame that there were no live saxophone players on stage. J. Cole could learn a thing or two off Lil Wayne and Kendrick Lamar. In their live performances, they make the most of their best songs by teasing the audience with the start of the track and then rewinding it and starting again to really draw out and engage their fans.
Nevertheless, after performing a crowd favourite, ‘Lost Ones,’ he had a climatic ending with ‘Can’t Get Enough’. After leaving the stage, the TV Report reappeared. For me this worked; I was impressed by the visuals all night and this theme, in comparison to other performances, really stood out. While there was hardly any cheer for an encore, J. Cole came back anyway. He was saving the best till last and performed ‘Power Trip’.
After the successful release of this album, I was left disappointed by his live performance. It never really felt like the crowd were fully on his side. Just as you were getting into the rhythm of things, he would draw out intermissions that were simply too long. Like Frank Ocean, maybe his self-reflective music is better for at home listening rather than live performances.