Ever since the beginning of the campaign for J Cole’s fourth studio album, ‘4 Your Eyez Only’, it was evident that the focus had shifted from the story-telling, individualist, journey-driven approach of 2014’s ‘Forest Hills Drive’, to a societal one. Not to detract from anything that the third album brought us in terms of insight and self-awareness, but this album, seemingly told a different story.
This story is an organic one, and it sees Cole dive head-first into rap-activism. From his first-hand experiences of Ferguson, to the production of the 4 Your Eyez Only Dreamville Film, and everything in-between, it’s all been happening in America and beyond, both right now, and before.
So when J Cole arrives in London nearing the end of the European leg of his ‘4 Your Eyez Only Tour’, the stage is set. Performing two packed-out shows at The 02, the stage immediately captures our attention – a prison cell block, ringed in barbed wire, and guarded by towering lights and CCTV cameras. Following the ramped up opening performances from his Dreamville entourage; Ari Lennoxx, J.I.D and Earthgang – the mood bleakens, although maintains an underlying hint of anticipation. Cole’s arrival is met with screams as he is marches down the prison hallway, chained up. They open the gates, uncuff him, and we are welcomed by a, now 32-year-old, man, sporting a bright orange prison jumpsuit, under one spotlight, released onto the stage, howling out the pain of several-hundred years of struggle through the rough vocals of For Whom The Bell Tolls.
The somber mood is then transformed into the aggressive rockstar-esque energy of ‘Immortal’, and back down again, as the elegant almost calming delivery of J Cole’s poetic monologue-type verse ending the song becomes the welcome to the show. It’s after this introduction, with the third track ‘Déjà vu’, that we are really exposed to the perfect harmony of the vulnerability and belligerence that J Cole delivers during the tour and the album itself. Although seemingly a perfect balance, in hindsight and considering the tone and message of his dialogue throughout the show, the aggressiveness seems birthed through this susceptibility to those who suffer from a ‘Vile Mentality’. From explaining the story of a 17-man armed swat team invading his home in North Carolina which inspired ‘Neighbours’, to the delineation of the mind state that plagues the young minds of Black communities, this mentality is not something that one couldn’t appreciate.
Under the spotlight, as the same live instrumental band that have been with him from the first tour play softly in the background, you can appreciate this live-for-the-moment mentality, but you’re constantly reminded that you can’t live by it forever because of where it’s derived from. Cole sums up this message with ‘Change’, another cut off the album, accompanied by Ari Lennox, who brings a groovy-tone to the show, setting up perfectly his next set of the night – the ‘day one’ hits.
After parading into an acapella verse of ‘Lights Please’, with each word exemplified by fans, Cole skips into a crowd bouncing rendition of ‘Neighbours’ after having DJ Dummy reverse the ‘Forbidden Fruit’ instrumental from ‘Born Sinner’, his second studio album, and home of one of his biggest singles to date, ‘Power Trip’. All of this before he is met by a roar of screams after the first note of ‘Nobody’s Perfect’ drops, before ending this slight detour from the album, with an acapella second-verse of ‘Can’t Get Enough’.
It’s the moment before the finale of ‘No Role Modelz’ however, and watching Cole prance around the stage screaming about his domestic desires with ‘Foldin’ Clothes’, is when the irony hits you. Whilst it may seem humorous, (the humour being something he acknowledges himself before breaking down the deeper significance of love and relationships), he’s doing it on a stage set up as a prison yard, in a jumpsuit, and just a few songs away from being re-incarcerated.
It’s here that stands the true power of J Cole.
Cole has an ability to scrutinize and address issues that plague minority communities, and apply them to the majority, whilst maintaining unprecedented hooks and flows, entertaining his fans and putting on one of the shows of the year. His preciseness in dissecting the effects that his stardom, fame and fortune has had on his ability, and it’s influence is evident. The power is there, so are the people, it’s time to take the chains off.