Ari Lennox, EarthGang, J.I.D and Bas. North Carolina emcee J. Cole, now one of the most commanding names in hip hop, is certainly chiseling his Interscope imprint Dreamville Records into something truly impressive, and positioned to grow well beyond 2018. It’s nothing new for a successful rapper to start fielding and fostering their own roster of talent after a few years in the game, this has been happening since the 90s with varying results.
T.I couldn’t quite get the first iteration of Grand Hustle out into the mainstream (with the exception of B.o.B), but Hustle Gang is finally starting to take shape; Wiz Khalifa took some time to build up a worthy cult following for Taylor Gang; Kendrick Lamar led Top Dawg Entertainment straight to the very top; and Ludacris…well Disturbing tha Peace never really took off outside of himself and Chingy. Then you have legendary factions like Ruff Ryders, Rocafella and Death Row, all of which are testament to these slow-growing empires that often begin with one figurehead leading the way, reaching back, and pulling others up. It’s this kind of empathy with other musicians and willingness to share success that seems to be a common thread for all the biggest hip hop artists of our time.
The JAY-Zs, Eminems, Dr Dres and Lil Waynes of this world have all built empires that have spilled into other entrepreneurial pursuits like fashion and film, and I have little doubt that J Cole is well on his way to joining those ranks, particularly after seeing him use his Australian and New Zealand shows as not only a love letter to his fans, but a showcase of the undeniable talent that’s brewing over at Dreamville.
All four of the aforementioned acts took the stage as support for Cole, given around 20 minutes each with showcase-style performances that spoke to the depth and breadth of styles coming out of the growing label.
First up was D.C singer Ari Lennox, slotting right in with the predominantly hip hop bent of the night with slick, powerful R&B sketched over punchy productions like the closing track “Backseat” which most certainly got over well with the enthusiastic sold-out crowd.
Then the vibe totally shifted for Earth Gang, whose stage presence recalls OutKast (one is tall and eccentric, the other short and fiery) with that really distinctive southern fried country rap sound in-line with groups like Nappy Roots and Field Mob. That kind of authentic country style is blended near perfectly with the modern “trap” sketches focused on hyper-repetitive, energetic hooks threaded through lyrically impressive raps, presenting an act that’s unique and welcome in modern hip hop and will no doubt be taking on bigger roles on the global scene in the near future. Tracks like “The F Bomb” and “Red Light” are potent, earth-shattering beasts live, chalking up a big win for the label and for Atlanta in general.
And just like that it seemed the space before J Cole was a southern hip hop concert, with fellow ATLien J.I.D hitting the stage bringing a non-stop showcase of his dexterous, fired-up flow that seamlessly jumped from bar to bar, making this 27 year old one to most definitely watch out for in the coming year. He only had a short time to fling cuts from his debut album The Never Story, released earlier this year, but he made the most of it, even bringing Earth Gang back out for the wordy “Meditate”.
Bas was the final support before Cole and, as the only New York emcee, was the one most steeped in traditional hip hop. The Queens rapper is a highly capable, thoughtful emcee although after the three acts before him Bas seemed to struggle a bit to really hold the crowd’s attention. His excellent sophomore album Too High To Riot was displayed nicely here, the textured productions coming across well live as they amplified Bas’ self-assured flow even though it wasn’t nearly half as interesting as Earth Gang or J.I.D. Bas seems to be in the place J Cole was at before 2014 Forest Hills Drive; making hip hop that’s likeable and impressive, but ultimately too safe with very little character to really distinguish himself as an artist in an overcrowded scene.
While showcasing Dreamville was the agenda for the night, all eyes were on Cole when it came his turn to burn up the stage with a grand set-piece that was constructed like a prison while the rapper stood there stalking the stage in an orange jumpsuit. I’d seen Cole when he was out here supporting Eminem in 2014 and can confidently say he, along with his music in general, has only gotten better with time. The way he commands the stage, navigates the live arrangements of each track (assisted by a full band obscured by prison doors) and forces out each bar with real, emotive power, it all comes together and puts the focus on each and every song.
From the pure raw energy of “Immortal” to the existential yearning of “Ville Mentality”, the latter stretched into two performances to really hammer in the message, the first few tracks of Cole’s set was more than enough to instantly call this as the hip hop tour of the year. I’d been expecting as much, and those standards were certainly exceeded as the North Carolina emcee held the crowd and gently drew them closer, aiming to give us real, impactful insight into the context of cuts like “Neighbours” and “Love Yourz” while mixing it up with the wildness of everything from “A Tale of 2 Citiez”, a dark song that wouldn’t feel out of place in a modern remake of Menace II Society, to storytelling great “Wet Dreamz”.
Most importantly, seeing J Cole’s live show is just a sharp reminder of what true artistry in hip hop looks like. These songs aren’t embarrassingly squashed into medleys (although a few are condensed), but brought out and opened up to really contextualise the raps and pump power into the messages. I’ve seen Kendrick do it, Krit do it, and now Cole do it – and it’s no surprise that these are the three rappers regularly touted by “hip hop heads” as the so-called “leaders of the new school”.
For Whom the Bell Tolls
Change (with Ari Lennox)
Can’t Get Enough
Neighbors (Forbidden Fruit Intro)
A Tale of 2 Citiez
No Role Modelz
The reviewer attended this show on December 4th.