Shortly before J.Cole sauntered onto the Key Club's stage, the staticky intro of Jay-Z's “Public Service Announcement” bound together the sold-out crowd packed sardine-tight with more than just physical proximity. Acting as a unit, the audience rapped along with Jay, throwing their arms in the air as he shouted, “Hov!”; throwing the “dynasty sign” as he rapped, “CEO of the R-O-C.” It was a moment when you realized the power Jay-Z's songs still wield. It was also a moment when you realized the pressure J.Cole's under.
Of course, an appearance on the cover of Forbes with Warren Buffet means Jay-Z's lyrical agility almost has been overshadowed by his entrepreneurial savvy. And the recent surprise acquisitions of Willow “Whip My Hair” Smith and enigmatic everyman rapper Jay Electronica by Roc Nation, Jay-Z's entertainment company, have shouldered some of the expectation J.Cole alone was carrying. Even so, as Jay-Z's chosen one, the weight of the world (ok, the blogosphere) is still draped around his neck.
So far, the Fayetteville, NC, native's mostly been ignoring the ever-growling belly of that blogosphere, instead following in the rap godfathers' strategic old-school footsteps. Restricting his output to three quality mixtapes, he's slowly built anticipation for his debut album to a fiend-like fever. His latest mixtape, Friday Night Lights, required hip-hop sites to post multiple download links as one by one they became overwhelmed with demand.
That same mania was on display at Saturday night's show. “I can tell they're a lot of O.G. J.Cole fans out there!” he exclaimed. (But not O.G.s. While the crowd seemed to know every word to his every song, when Cole covered L.A.'s own chosen son Tupac's “I Ain't Mad At Cha,” they knew the chorus, but mumbled the verses.)
J.Cole matched the crowd's fervor from the start of the show, whipping them into delirium with “Last Call” and “Dead Presidents II,” both from 2009's The Warm Up. It wasn't until about a minute into the self-produced “Dollar and a Dream II,” though, when he began rapping a cappella, that you witnessed the studied skill that landed him his deal.
But all the intelligence and emotional honesty with which Cole imbues his records often got lost in his show. The cheerful chords of Friday Night Lights' “Higher” ask for a light vocal tap dance, but during this performance, J.Cole nearly was shouting his rhymes. It happened again, during “In the Morning.” The consequences arrived quickly–by the end of the show, his voice seemed brushed with sandpaper. The tendency to overexert vocally in order to show enthusiasm is tempting, yet he'd already easily demonstrated it without stressing his voice.
The audience didn't mind, though, especially when they were shouting just as recklessly for Cole to perform his mainstream hits: “Who Dat,” the kind of song your high school marching band saved for the homecoming pep rally, and Miguel's “All I Want Is You,” a song slicked with sex on which Cole features. He obliged them with both, as well as a two-song encore and a generous amount of time grasping the hands lurching from the crunch near the front of the stage.
“I appreciate y'all,” he directed over and over to every nook and cranny of the club individually. T-shirt soaked and sticking to his chest, he smiled and shuffled good-naturedly offstage. It's still the Roc, just a less cocky one.