J. Cole performs Thursday at the Masonic Temple in Detroit. (Adam Graham / Detroit News)
J. Cole traveled to hell and back during his performance Thursday night at Detroit’s Masonic Temple. In the process, the 28-year-old North Carolina rapper proved yet again that he is one of hip-hop’s top talents.
While not all the pieces came together all the time, Cole’s ambition shined through in the high concept 100-minute show, and showed off his considerable strengths as a live performer.
Cole fashioned the show as a journey from darkness to light. At the beginning of the concert, a news report ran saying Cole had been injured in a car accident. From there, the show loosely followed his soul’s voyage from hell up to heaven.
The operative word here is “loosely,” since the material didn’t always fit the concept. But the structure of the show was clear, though it sometimes led to corny acting interludes from Cole as he questioned his whereabouts (the red lights bathing the stage and the illustrations of fire on the video screens were a pretty good tip off he wasn’t at the pearly gates).
Still, Cole gets points for trying. Live hip-hop rarely takes the kind of chances he was taking in terms of weaving storytelling into a concert, and Cole’s presentation was a bold step forward. When he’s able to get everything to align in the right way, from the concept to the songs to the staging, he’ll really be a force to be reckoned with.
He’s already got the performance part down. Cole is an especially strong live performer, and he’s able to easily navigate the stage and keep the crowd engaged. He’s an energetic presence, with swift movements and clear enunciation, and he respects his songs enough to perform them in full, rather than doing the hip-hop trick of performing a song’s chorus and moving on to the next hit.
He brought his material to life through the use of a five-piece band and two backup singers, and songs such as “Villuminati” and “Chris Tucker,” really came to life through the band. Cole gets it: he understands the importance of live presentation, and the bond he’s forming with fans is going to pay off for years to come.
Cole wrapped the show with a two song encore of “Crooked Smile” and “Power Trip,” his two hits from this year’s “Born Sinner” album. He delivered them with purpose, and showed that with or without the aid of a storyline, he's bound to come out on top.