Hip-hop is infamous for being braggadocios. It's not the kind of music where a rapper killing the charts typically does so with a mellow, introspective album in a singles driven world these days. It's even stranger still that an emcee would kick off a "three-act" promotional tour in small market cities instead of arenas and radio sponsored festivals across the nation.
But J. Cole is proclaiming that "The Real is Back" and proved his point at the Observatory in Santa Ana last night. Tickets for his show sold out in the blink of an eye. Once inside the venue, the buildup to his presence was as understated as the three-week notice for his latest album 2014 Forest Hills Drive released with little promotion in December. The overcrowded audience didn't have the chance to get antsy when the rapper humbly appeared around 9:30 p.m. without keeping them too long. Wearing grey sweat pants and a white t-shirt–apparel for a lazy day of Netflix–Cole sat down to soulfully croon "Intro."
Though it wasn't billed as an album show, the set flowed in the order of Forest Hills' tracklisting anyway. After finishing "January 28th" the rapper did a heat check with the crowd. "This is the best venue so far," Cole said before asking how many people were from SanTana vs. Los Angeles. The roars for LA won the decibels duel like at a freeway series game at Angel Stadium. The rapper said he felt like performing the whole album adding that he hoped his fans wouldn't mind. They didn't. The faithful legion held their arms extended with smartphones in hand capturing the moments while reciting the rhymes with impassioned dedication. The catchy "I ain't never did this before" chorus of the cuming of age anthem "Wet Dreamz" echoed through the venue.
The setting allowed J. Cole to take time to speak on the meaning behind certain songs transitioning them perfectly. Arms waved back and forth during the smooth, melodic "St. Tropez." The rapper from Lafayette, North Carolina talked about the tension of being fearful of success but wanting to leave the confines of his small town. He broke from Forest Hills to offer an intermission of throwback jams for those who've been down for his grind since The Warm Up mixtape. It also gave the show a chance to depart from the soulful sounds and get grittier.
After intermission, the Forest Hills fest resumed with "G.O.M.D." (Get Off My Dick!) Ironically, a woman in the crowd began grinding a pillar like a pole during his 'club jams trump love songs' lament. The gyrations continued through "No Role Modelz" whose intro melody got the crowd pumped up and chanting "Don't save her/ She don't wanna be saved!" The album performance came full circle with the mellow ending of "Love Yourz." But the show didn't end on that note. With shouts of "J-Cole" barely beginning to sound, the rapper quickly reappeared to offer cuts from Born Sinner, his previous chart-topping album.
Cole cut off the beat to finish "Crooked Smile" a capella and almost made the same mistake twice with "Power Trip" before bringing the beat back up while signing CDs and shaking hands with people in the crowd. It showed the realness of the emcee who managed to balance hype of his current moment with humility. The night offered the rare opportunity of seeing a performer on the rise in the most modest of settings.
Album shows are usually reserved for acts looking back at a landmark recording years later. The Observatory has been booking them left and right as of late from dead prez to Tha Dogg Pound. The Born Sinner singles may have closed out J. Cole's encore on a high note, but the night belonged to 2014 Forest Hills Drive, performed in order, in its entirety, just like the instant classic it is.
Critic's bias: I've been tweeting J. Cole lyrics all week leading up to the show
Overheard: Wanna beat traffic? (Definitely a dude from LA!)
The Crowd: A sardine can of mostly LA but also some OC hip-hop heads
A Tale of Two Citiez
In the Morning
No Role Modelz
Can't Get Enough