At S.O.B.’s, J. Cole Steps Out From Jay-Z’s Shadow
A few years ago, when Jermaine Cole was a freshman at St. John’s University, he came to the downtown nightclub S.O.B.’s to check out a performance by a young rapper just beginning to make a name for himself. The show was packed tight, and Mr. Cole, an aspiring rapper himself, and new to New York, stood in the audience and tried to imagine the night as a glimpse into his own future.
Tuesday night at S.O.B.’s it was Mr. Cole’s turn to be onstage, staring out into a sold-out crowd. He pointed to the spot in the audience where he’d stood at that show — Kanye West’s first major New York concert, as it happens — as an enthusiastic fan. “I don’t know if that’s how you’re feeling about me,” Mr. Cole said, “but that’s how I’m feeling about this show.”
Mr. West would go on to become one of the most important figures in American pop music. Without Mr. West’s success and the structural changes to hip-hop that came with it, maybe Mr. Cole — who performs as J. Cole — would still be in the crowd: no widely acclaimed mixtapes, no magazine covers, no record deal with Jay-Z’s Roc Nation empire.
But a young rapper in 2010 has far different barriers to cross than he would have just five years ago. Mr. West allowed for a new hip-hop paradigm, less aggressive and more emotionally nuanced. Mr. Cole, technically impressive but a little tender — unlike Mr. West he stuck it out in college and graduated — is a model of modern rap success.
That means, among other things, less emphasis on ostentation and more on online chatter. “Shout-out to the bloggers that’s in the building!” barked the warm-up D.J., who may well have been talking about everyone in the room. Videos, photos, Twitter and blog posts: by Wednesday morning you could almost experience this concert play by play just by scanning the Internet.
What those clips show is a rapper growing into his talent. Mr. Cole, originally from Fayetteville, N.C., performed “Dead Presidents II,” a furious technical exercise over the old Jay-Z song of the same name. That was one of the highlights of his mixtape from last year, “The Warm-Up,” from which Mr. Cole drew much of his material for this show, and which revealed him as a rapper impressed with his own knack for punch lines and clever metaphors, and less concerned with song construction.
But he’s learning: a new song, “Who Dat,” was fully formed, and he put his stamp on “A Star Is Born,” his coming-out party from Jay-Z’s last album, “The Blueprint 3.” Rather than just rap over that song’s original beat, reinforcing his guest role, he slowed it down, with just a keyboardist backing him, making the moment his own.
Jay-Z wasn’t there to distract from it, but Mr. Cole was happy to share the stage. He brought out Talib Kweli, the socially-minded New York rap star, to perform “Get By,” and their new collaboration “Just Begun.” And later he was joined by Young Chris, once one of the secret weapons of Jay-Z’s old label, Roc-A-Fella, to perform “Still the Hottest.”
Of Roc-A-Fella rappers Young Chris was always among the least flashy, but he was still wearing a version of his old Roc-A-Fella chain here. “I’m blessed to share the same name,” Mr. Cole said, making a link between Jay-Z’s old label and his new one, but then, looking down at his black T-shirt, weighed down with sweat but not jewelry, he joked, “We don’t got the same chain.” That’s for the best.