In the world of K-pop, there is a certain expectation that comes along with attending a concert. It’s an expectation to be “wowed,” to be dazzled, to be blown off your feet, to have an experience that could cause a fan to label it as the “best concert ever.” It is a mighty expectation to live up to.
Sometimes fans forget that the same standard exists for American concerts too. J. Cole didn’t forget, though.
I have listened to J. Cole’s music since 2012, so let me begin by saying that I made sure to get the best ticket I could afford for his “4 Your Eyez Only” tour stop in St. Paul, Minnesota. It ended up being a Neighbors VIP Package; it wasn’t anything too fancy, just a reserved seat and some merchandise that would be mailed out. I had bought the ticket back in March, a few days after I had seen BTS actually, and since the euphoria from their “WINGS Tour” concert had not worn off, the bar was set pretty high. Regardless of expectations, I set myself a countdown timer and waited patiently for July 21 to arrive.
The day of the concert came in the blink of an eye, and then it went away just as quickly The show actually got rescheduled to the 22nd because of some issues at the Canadian border. Luckily, I was still able to go.
His concert was held at the XCEL Energy Center in St. Paul, Minnesota. It’s where they hold the Minnesota Wild hockey games, so it’s rather large. The atmosphere was relaxed, though, with people milling around merchandise lines or tapping their fingers casually on the counter while they waited for the bartender to hand over the next beer. There was no screaming, no inside joke references plastered on to poster boards, no cutout memes of J. Cole’s face (although that part was slightly disappointing). The light hum of chatter that settled over the arena was pleasant; it helped alleviate some of the nerves I had about being in such a large crowd.
When I entered my section, I could immediately tell I had a fantastic seat. There were three stages: one to my far right, which had keyboards, drums, guitar stands and other general band related items; one directly in front of me that had at least thirty security cameras on it as well as barbed wire wrapped around the very front; and one to my far left that contained two or three professional-grade cameras on tripods. I figured J. Cole would perform some songs on the stage in front of me and some on the stage to my right, that he would travel and walk around some, as was customary in the one K-pop concert I had attended previously. What ended up happening, however, was even more spectacular than that.
All of the four opening acts — Ari, J.I.D, Bas and Anderson .Paak & The Free Nationals — performed on the stage to my right. They were all extremely talented, extremely well-versed and extremely happy to be up on stage, but you could tell who the crowd was really waiting for. The energy for the opening acts started off high but would eventually die down after the first couple of verses, and by their final song the energy was virtually nonexistent. When the opening acts ended, the whole arena — which had nearly every seat filled since the official start time of the concert — died down to a hush. It was almost quieter than before the openers began.
The security guards started getting friendly with everyone around them; I was in row 2, seat 1, so I was especially close to the guards at the end of the stairs. I think the older of the two security guards could tell how excited I was because the next thing I knew he looked at me and said, “Make sure you have your phone ready. He’s going to enter through this walkway.”
I was dumbfounded. There was a walkway right behind the guard, within arm’s reach of me, but that couldn’t have been the isle he was talking about. I asked him, “What? This walkway? As in this walkway right here?” He nodded and smiled, then said, “Yep, he walks up through here to get on the stage,” as he pointed directly in front of me. I mean, I could have thrown a baseball clear past the stage, that’s how close it was. As I tried to prepare myself mentally, the arena went dark. A bass kicked in, the stair rails quaked with the vibrations and the whole stadium filled with the sound of a thousand screams and slight metallic grinding. A spotlight kicked in right next to the far right stage, and J. Cole was walking in my direction.
There was something ironic about the way he walked. He wasn’t jumping, he wasn’t hyped, he didn’t smile. Instead, he walked slowly, mostly looking at the ground, arms held in front of him rigidly and bodyguards on every side, almost like he was a prisoner being led to his death sentence. And that’s when it clicked. He took to the stage wearing an orange jumpsuit with a tag on the back that said “Property of ______” — except it wasn’t really a stage. It was a jail cell. The barbed wire wrapped around the top, the abundance of security cameras, the makeshift windows with bars cut out on the side of the platform all came together to form a prison with J. Cole as the prisoner.
He opened with “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” keeping the low-key atmosphere, not wanting to rile the audience up too much yet. Of course, the audience was already riled up. When “For Whom the Bell Tolls” ended, the real fun began. J. Cole gradually built up the hype. The screams seemed to get louder with every song, and the energy rose like a boiling pot of water, letting off steam in the form of hoarse screams and screeched “I love you’s.”
In between performances, J. Cole talked for a while, similar to the way K-pop artists do. Except J. Cole’s banter was different, because it wasn’t just “talking.” He was giving speeches, lectures almost, filled with positive words and wisdom to take home for the rest of your life. He spoke about living in the moment, about how normally that’s not a mentality you want to live by, but for this night — this one single night — living in the moment is all he wanted us to do. He talked about how he wanted us to scream so loud that the other side of the world could here us. He said, “Fuck your voice. You don’t need it tomorrow. Fuck your voice.”
He told us about how he was going to perform every song on “4 Your Eyez Only” because sometimes the hardest thing for an artist to do was perform the songs that weren’t hits on the radio or didn’t trend on Spotify. He told us about the time the FBI raided his house even though he had nothing to hide. He told us about his best friend who died.
There’s a certain amount of respect set aside for an artist like J. Cole, who can leave a fan with that underlying sense of wisdom and who can utterly blow their mind at the same time. The longer the concert went, the talks got deeper, and the songs got louder. With every word of pain he spoke, the crowd returned it to him in the form of fierce love and admiration. Sweat started to pour down everyone’s faces from jumping around so much. The security guards began to break focus more and more as they couldn’t help but turn around and watch Cole for a bit.
When the end of the concert arrived, nobody booed. Nobody called for an encore. J. Cole was going to perform “4 Your Eyez Only,” the last song on his album and the last song of the night. It seemed so fitting that nobody tried to argue; they just stood there in appreciation, listening to Cole lay out the story of his best friend’s background, listening to him pour his heart and soul into his last verse, watching him walk off the stage to tumultuous roars of satisfaction and love. And suddenly, suddenly, J. Cole was walking toward my seat again, exiting the same way he had entered.
Everybody jokes that they’re going to “snatch their mans,” and I did too. But I was done joking. I hopped up from my seat so fast and whipped out my phone, praying, praying that 2 percent lasted long enough to see J. Cole get to me. When he arrived at my section, my hand was out, reaching past the bodyguard, reaching for dear life until finally — finally — I felt the touch of another person. J. Cole touched my hand, a singular, small grasp as he walked by, but he had done it. I pulled my hand away in disbelief, screaming like a maniac, immediately going to my phone to see if it had been caught on video only to see that my phone was dead. Needless to say, the walk to my car where my precious charging dock was was a fast one. But I found it. I’d caught it on video.
And so concluded a fantastic concert. A concert that lived beyond my expectations. Having only been to one concert before, I had no way of knowing what this one would be like. It was difficult to compare the two and nearly impossible to say which one I enjoyed more, so I settled on a tie. At BTS, I was close to the stage, got great pictures and videos and got Taehyung‘s water bottle when he threw it in to the crowd. At J. Cole, I was close to the stage, was personally close to Cole twice and got video footage of him touching my hand. So the score between the two was pretty even.
It did leave me blown away, though. Blown away and thirsty for more. It was a Cole World experience to remember and judge all future concerts by.
All photo and video credits go to Kaylee Schnobrich.