Much has been made of J. Cole’s journey from small-town dreamer to the centerpiece of Jay-Z’s Roc Nation, and the story can almost seem too perfect. Hence the criticism that his debut album, “Cole World: The Sideline Story,” doesn’t match the hype (despite topping the Billboard charts upon its release last month). But if the sold-out Fillmore show of his first headlining tour truly revealed this heralded rapper’s potential, Cole is more than comfortable wearing the princely robes as heir to Jay-Z’s crown.
Even if you haven’t spent the past four years consuming his mix-tape releases and featured verses, when you see him live you immediately understand his star power. The packed house Wednesday chanted his lyrics in unison and at a deafening volume. But the show was winning for more reasons than the young, adoring crowd’s commitment to a pep rally for its favorite ascendant rapper.
The young artist has a pacing and presence that support his claim of having studied the greats. And backed by the deft work of DJ Dummy and Cole’s production partners on keyboards, the music was more dynamic than a bland stream of tracks. From the rowdy bounce of “Higher” from his “Friday Night Lights” mix tape to a serious moment when rapping “Daddy’s Little Girl” from a stool on the stage, Cole strung most of the tunes on his album together with a few back-catalogue pieces to command unwavering attention for his hour-plus set.
He is not a rapper’s rapper, though he has enough quotables for your average male rap fan to cite with admiration and self-identification. But he also has a combination of swagger and vulnerability that proves irresistible to the ladies, and therein lie his chances for longevity in a game that ruthlessly discards rappers. Cole’s harshest tales of sexual conquest are tempered by his penchant for singing his own hooks, but not in the cloying way that his peer Drake has popularized. Which is why he was just as enthusiastically received when crooning the Paula Abdul-interpolated chorus of “Work Out,” propositioning a young lady for a one-night stand, as he was when baring emotion on “Lost Ones,” a tale of a young couple struggling with an unplanned pregnancy.
Anderson is a freelance writer.