J. Cole makes things personal on KOD Tour

Rapper lectures and propels thousands at KeyBank Center


J. Cole wasn’t afraid to hide his emotions on Tuesday night.

Halfway through his first encore track, “1985,” Cole cut the instrumental and broke down in tears in front of roughly 15,000 fans at the KeyBank Center. 

The crowd’s energy ran high throughout the rapper’s one hour and 45 minute set, as Cole shared a night of thought-provoking hip-hop and personal reflection. 

Cole, the self-proclaimed “greatest rapper of all time,” mainly performed tracks from his two most recent releases, 2018’s “KOD” and 2016’s “4 Your Eyez Only.” Cole also mixed in earlier cuts like “Work Out” and “Power Trip,” giving the 24-song set a vivid look into Cole’s deep catalogue. 

But Cole was sure to make fans know his hip-hop stature in the process.

During the rapper’s aggressive title track “KOD,” goat emojis lit up the stage’s seven screens, backing Cole’s assertion of being rap royalty. The fired-up crowd stood behind the claim and provided roaring applause and unison jumping that shook the venue.

Cole paired visual stimulation with most tracks and used montages to accompany the narrative of songs like “Neighbors.” He wasn’t afraid to get political, as the screen featured viral videos that highlighted racial tensions.

Cole spoke often in between tracks, touching on topics from the overtones that drive “KOD,” politics and personal advice.

“When you really bust down this ‘KOD’ album, it’s really about one thing,” Cole said. “And that’s our ability to deal with pain.”

Cole added motivational words later in the set and urged the crowd to aspire toward greatness.

“Do not f–––––g stop,” Cole said. “Don’t make that mistake. This s––t is a step by step f–––––g process.”

Cole focused on pain through many of his tracks and interactions with the audience. He brought up his own experience with sorrow and said “the people that got the ability to hurt you the absolute most are the closest to you.”

His musical pauses between songs cut many in half, which gave the rapper time to lecture his impressionable fans. The pauses often deprived the crowd of entire tracks. 

The abrupt endings either led to another track or marked the beginning of, what could best be described as, a J. Cole TED Talk. Even though the talks limited his setlist, fans listened when Cole spoke his mind or switched songs. 

During “Power Trip,” Cole stopped rapping after the first verse and chorus, quickly jumping into his last stream of tracks. Fans still followed along and gave Cole their attention nonetheless.

The crowd responded well to deeper cuts like “A Tale of 2 Citiez” and “Kevin’s Heart.” Cole remained stoic for the most of the set, but found ample time to deviate and run to both corners of the stage. Tracks from “2014 Forest Hills Drive” drew the most excitement from fans.

Fans sung classics “Wet Dreamz” and “No Role Modelz” back to Cole almost in their entirety. This allowed Cole to stop the track and go a cappella, energizing the crowd without the need of a backing band.

Cole’s band, although present, stayed hidden behind the stage’s curtains. This made Cole the center of attention throughout his set, as Cole never introduced his instrumentalists –– including a string section –– who carried the majority of his show.

The concert featured three openers, although the focus remained on Cole.

Young Thug set the stage for Cole and quickly drew the crowd close as he relied on a set of feature tracks during his performance. 

The rapper rarely strayed from his position center stage, close to the microphone stand. Thug struggled to gain traction beyond the performances of “Pick Up the Phone” and “Best Friend.” His set concluded abruptly and without warning as he walked off the stage unannounced. 

Brenton Blanchet and Brian Evans are editors and can be reached at arts@ubspectrum.com.