The occasionally thin line between a rapper and a preacher disappears entirely when J. Cole is onstage.
During his compelling, expertly scripted, 100-minute performance Saturday night at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Cole displayed the strengths shared by accomplished poets of the streets and men of the cloth. His cadences were contagious and his passion visceral in the service of narratives meant to be both personal and universal. His 17 songs were arrayed into tactfully ambitious morality plays, frequently buttressed by Cole’s lengthy preambles and postscripts.
Cole’s concerts manifest his genius for blending street credibility with commercial success and moral positivity. Hip-hop is a genre that honors its hardscrabble, old-school traditions and its role of providing an outlet for righteous racial and economic indignation.
Cole finesses these codes with a flourish. While his backing band — which included violinists, backup vocalists, a traditional rhythm section and a DJ mixing and scratching beats — played on the stage used by most performers at the end of the arena, he was escorted in, clad in an orange prison jumpsuit, to his own stage in the middle of the crowd. Adorned by banks of lights at each of the four corners (to aid the video screens above) and just a stool in the middle, it had the feel and contours of a boxing ring.
He opened with the first five songs, in order, from his latest album, “4 Your Eyez Only,” which debuted at No. 1 on Billboard and is his fourth-straight platinum-selling record. The crowd, which nearly filled Xcel despite a last-minute, 24-hour time change resulting from a delay in the band crossing the border from Canada last week, was pumped, collectively roaring the lyrics of every song.
Cole then upped the ante, asking for a volunteer from the audience to help him deliver the words from a song he would choose from deep in his back catalog of material. It turned out to be “Lights Please,” from the second of his three mix tapes, which fostered enough hype to land Cole regal guest stars like Jay-Z and Drake on his official debut album, “Cole World.” To the delight of all, the woman who volunteered nailed almost every word under the spotlight.
Cole then performed two other “Cole World” numbers — “Nobody’s Perfect” (with a great Missy Elliott sample) and “Can’t Get Enough” — before returning to “4 Your Eyez Only” with a glorious vengeance on “Neighbors.”
The song is about a SWAT team invading Cole’s suburban home recording studio because his neighbors reported him as a suspected drug dealer. Cole’s blistering rendition was a highlight of the show. First, he showed footage from his own security cameras of cops storming the place — political red meat that would have been more incendiary if shown before the song. Then he told the audience that as his anger subsided, he realized he should have checked his wayward notion of upward mobility and made the studio investment in his old urban neighborhood.
The rest of the set tacked back and forth from the family-friendly domesticity of being a strong, appreciative mate (“Foldin Clothes” and “Love Yourz”) and a loving father (“She’s Mine, Pt. 2”) to a series of hip-hop bangers from his albums “2014 Forest Hills Drive” and “Born Sinner,” beginning with “A Tale of 2 Citiez” and ending with “No Role Modelz.”
Cole very self-consciously is a role model. He closed the show with the somber title track to “4 Your Eyez Only,” about a deceased father leaving behind a testimony of love and a cautionary tale of the streets to his daughter.
If there was a flaw to Cole’s performance Saturday night, it was that nothing was left to chance. The set list and between-song exchanges with the audience were nearly identical to other concerts on his tour.
The strength of Cole’s performance could be found on the back of his orange jumpsuit, in the blank white space beneath the words, “Property Of.” J. Cole is his own man, preaching to an enormous choir of his own making.
Britt Robson is a Minneapolis freelance writer.