Hip hop at the Straz. The how and why of how this came to be is something I’d definitely be interested in hearing about. Not that Friday night’s double-billed show featuring rap chart-toppers J. Cole and Wale on their "What Dreams May Come" tour didn’t pop and bang — but when they come to a place typically reserved for parent types looking to see Oklahoma for the third time or the latest run of Wicked, the juxtaposition is interesting to say the least.
Wale’s about three songs deep when I walk into the theater, the sweet scent of high-grade grass crawling up into my nostrils. I can only imagine the thoughts of the old, grey-haired lady who leads us to our seats; she seems helpful but mildly terrified at a crowd full of folks more apt to roll up in a tricked-out Navigator than an old Town Car, given the $55 it takes to get into this thing.
Backed by a stage-long, head-high wall of colored LCD lights, Wale’s going in and crushing verse like his lines are gospel. With an ego the size of the building, he probably really believes they are, but unlike the Maybach Music emcees that surround him — whose massive egos are founded on little or no talent — Wale’s got the live presence, energy, and delivery to hang with some of rap’s current best.
Posse rap in a live setting should die a terrible, torturous death as far as I’m concerned, and Wale seems to agree, because just like the last time he hit Tampa, Wale opts to rock the stage solo, once and a while backed by an unnamed R&B vocalist dude who actually had the pipes to sing the hooks and make Wale's performance all the more better, not embarrassingly worse. Props to Wale for using a live band too, but what’s with hiding them behind that big trippy LCD screen?
After about 45 minutes, the D.C. native had delivered a nice run-through of top tracks from his More About Nothing mixtapes and his three major-label albums, including “Ambition,” “Chillen,” “Kicks” and others that all sounded pretty great in this unlikely venue.
J. Cole was up next. The last time I saw him, he was on the cusp of a major label deal as he humbly, but skillfully won over the crowd and myself at the Tennessee mega-fest Bonnaroo about two years ago. The dude really couldn’t have been more new to this level of spotlight as he thanked the crowd way more than he had to and rocked the stage with a majority of consciously-minded tracks from his Friday Night Lights mixtape series, backed by a set-up of two keyboard players, a single DJ, and not much else.
Cut to this Friday night. Cole’s got a massive, three-story stage complete with white staircase, two keyboardists, a hilariously white sun-glassed guitarist, DJ, drummer, and I think that’s it…Oh, and an enormous video screen atop the staircase.
Someone is not fucking around with that major label money, I think to myself as the lights dim, the fog billows and a faux news report about North Carolina rapper J. Cole dying (or being critically injured) in a late-night car crash. Cole makes his grand entrance at the top of the staircase clad in a leather baseball jersey and SINNER-emblazoned snapback before diving into “Trouble” off his sophomore LP, Born Sinner.
It sounds fucking enormous and, admittedly, pretty amazing, but the theatrics get pretty nauseating after a handful of songs.
There are cut scenes, a wardrobe change, and different videos all centered around this theme of Cole dying and being resurrected — or something? It’s all fluff as far as I’m concerned. J. Cole’s one of the few these days who’s actually climbed to the top with a modicum of skill and integrity that’s few and far between in chart-topping hip hop today. Now he, or whoever’s trying to make this tour as ornate (or profitable) as possible, is trying to put on a “show” when he really doesn’t have to. Leave that shit to Wacka or 2 Chainz or Rick Ross. Cole is one of the few big names whose material (just like Wale’s) can easily carry itself without all the fucking fog machines and staircases and lame CGI graphics.
Overall, all the hits like “Power Trip” (no Miguel, unfortunately), “Work Out,” “In the Morning” and “Forbidden Fruit” still sound great with a dab of unintentional comedy as Cole sips, and seems to feel the effects of, the open bottle of Hennessey sitting on the stage as the night goes by. At one point some dude comes out and openly smokes a blunt on stage (I picture this move promoting the house manager to flip a shit as the veins bulge from his red hot forehead), J. Cole goes on a weird rant about Lebron being the next Jordan (highly debatable) and the greatness of Napoleon, but only really reading, like, 20 pages of his biography. It’s a little weird, but fun as the near-sellout crowd, everyone from the balconies to the pit, nods and moves to the enormous sound exploding from the stage.
With all this in mind, though, you can’t help but smell a little whiff of “sell-out” along with the herb in the air on this Friday night. Stripped of everything, Cole’s still a skilled MC when it comes to delivery and theme, but if this dude can’t say no to all this big-time bullshit, he’s gonna wind up taking next guest verse on David Guetta’s newest coked-out, Miami club single or worse, taking Drake’s spot as the new Sprite guy, which isn’t always bad but ultimately is time and energy wasted on trivial BS when he could be writing his way to musical greatness. We’ll just have to wait and see where exactly his fame takes him next...