J. Cole’s honesty is a double-edged sword. It’s the defining characteristic that endears him to his millions of adoring fans, but for critics who only find snore-inducing banality in his candor, it’s a high crime. Regardless, the rapper remains committed to that honesty — and most importantly, to himself.
Despite his swelling popularity, J. Cole has withdrawn from the public eye in recent years. The 32-year-old moved back to his native North Carolina after years in New York, becoming a husband and father and living with much-valued privacy. He’s had ample time to think about the best use of his platform, be it recently visiting inmates at San Quentin State Prison in California or using his most recent album, “4 Your Eyez Only,” as a semi-fictional microscope for the fragility of life told largely from a friend’s perspective. And during a very good, very detail-oriented performance at Verizon Center Tuesday (the venue became Capital One Arena on Wednesday morning), J. Cole doubled down on the album’s theme and one thing that’s made his name one of the biggest in rap: speaking from the heart.
Dressed in an orange jumpsuit and surrounded by security guards, J. Cole’s entry was quite literally a staged imprisonment. But atop a stage adorned with barbed wire, barred windows and clusters of surveillance cameras, his performance felt more one-man theatrical display than prison-yard soliloquy. After opening the show with the first four songs from “4 Your Eyez Only” (“For Whom the Bell Tolls,” “Immortal,” “Deja Vu,” and “Ville Mentality”), he promised to perform the album in its entirety — but not without reaching back into his catalogue: his 2009 breakthrough “Lights Please,” “Nobody’s Perfect,” from his 2011 debut album “Cole World: The Sideline Story,” and “Forbidden Fruit” from 2013’s “Born Sinner,” to name a few.
The second it felt like he was deviating from the evening’s narrative, J. Cole refocused with “Neighbors,” complete with frank narration of surveillance footage showing the futile, racially motivated police raid of his home and studio. These moments, where Cole blends the right amount of humor and insight, underline his success. And songs like the beautifully sparse “Love Yourz,” where he issued the sobering reminder that “there’s no such thing as a life that’s better than yours,” are more affecting live as the sincerity of Cole’s slice-of-life reflections permeated throughout the building, hitting the intended targets in the audience.
Still, the night’s most touching vignettes were about parenthood — one of the most resounding themes on “4 Your Eyez Only.” “She’s Mine Pt. 2” is about its simple joy, while the album’s nine-minute title track, which ended the night, was J. Cole at his best: heartfelt, especially under the spotlight.