Concert Reviews

J. Cole Proved He's Hip Hop's People's Champion at Gexa on Sunday

J. Cole
With YG, Jeremih and Big Sean
Gexa Energy Pavilion, Dallas
Sunday, August 23, 2015

The hip-hop hierarchy is being shaken up, and J. Cole is doing the shaking. The North Carolina rapper returned to Dallas on Sunday night — barely two months after fans flocked to his surprise Dollar and a Dream tour kickoff at House of Blues — for the latest stop of his 2014 Forest Hills tour at Gexa Energy Pavilion. The nearly festival-worthy lineup included YG, Jeremih and Big Sean, each stars in their own right. But Cole was the clear star of the night, and the most telling aspect of his performance was how he went about it. Cole is the people's champion.

In the hierarchy of today’s hip-hop superstars, J. Cole’s only contemporaries are Drake, Kendrick Lamar and Kanye West. Arguments can be made for a few others, and the likes of, say, Eminem and Jay Z aren’t exactly included in the topic considering their legacies are already cemented. (The fact that J. Cole happens to be signed to Jay’s Roc Nation label reinforces as much.) The greatest common thread between the four rappers is a heightened sense of awareness and a willingness to open up to the listener. Of that foursome, Cole is the outlier, and he consistently stresses this — even to a fault. He’s not like the others because he’s not a celebrity. He’s a down-to-earth, regular guy from Fayetteville, North Carolina, just as he explained to the audience. 
2014 Forest Hills Drive is a testament to the trials and tribulations Cole endured on the long road to his No. 1 album, which he played it in its entirety without any objections from his adoring audience. Adoring may be an understatement. "Adoring" conjures images of people smiling at their high school crush with their chin on their hands. No, this was a voracious crowd screaming at Cole’s every move and word. They rapped along to every word to every song on the album as if there’s no such thing as a deep cut. And there really is no such thing as a deep cut to a J. Cole fan.

When he did stray from the latest album to play tracks from his older mixtapes The Warm Up and Friday Night Lights, the crowd chanted back each word again. It was a reaction that no other artist on the bill received, although Big Sean came the closest. While working through the new album, Cole explained that he uses his live shows as an opportunity to speak directly to his fans. To that end he brought the show to a halt on occasion and provided anecdotes about particular songs, such as “St. Tropez” and “No Role Modelz.” It’s the only way he knows how to operate.
This is what truly makes Cole an outlier. The effort he puts into building a personal connection with his fans is unparalleled by his contemporaries. He never misses an opportunity to include them in the process. Leading up to the release of 2014, Cole dropped by a fan’s house in Arlington and offered her a first listen of the album. Then in June he came through town with his Dollar and a Dream tour where fans were treated to a show for $1 after tracking down a secret location. An estimated 4,000 people showed up for the show, prompting the Dallas Police Department to also show up to control the crowd.

The other artists on the bill each have hits of their own and critically acclaimed albums, but YG, Jeremih and Big Sean haven’t built that personal connection. Instead they’re operating on the old hip-hop model of releasing catchy, beat-driven tracks and letting the radio do the rest of the work. To his credit, YG’s My Krazy Life features tracks as personal and as insightful as some of Cole’s best work, but his Compton gangster persona isn’t nearly as relatable as Cole’s everyman charm. Big Sean came up in the same vein as Cole, releasing mixtapes about his trials and tribulations. But once the checks started showing up, he signed with West’s G.O.O.D Music label and the Detroit wordsmith took his slice of what Cole might describe as the celebrity slice of the pie.

Sunday night was a testament that Cole is making all the right moves and that a little humility, transparency and sentiment goes a long way in hip-hop.

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Mikel Galicia is a trap scholar, the softest writer on the scene and his photo game is jumping out the gym. His work has been published in Sports Illustrated, ESPN and every major Dallas publication.