Already a rapper with a lot of personal drama in his songs, J. Cole returned for his second Twin Cities arena show in just over a year Wednesday night at Target Center with even more upheaval and emotion suddenly wrapped up in his tour.
Cole arrived in Minneapolis still stinging from the cancellation of his festival, Dreamville, last weekend in his native North Carolina due to Hurricane Florence.
The 33-year-old hitmaker also had to worry about his main opening act, Young Thug, making the gig.
Known for his part in the Camila Cabello megahit “Havana,” Mr. Thug canceled shows last week after turning himself into police near his native Atlanta on drug and gun charges. He made it to Minneapolis, but not on time, nor on fire.
After a 30-minute wait that left the 11,000 or so fans restless, Young Thug cruised through an abbreviated 25-minute set that never really got rolling. Too many of his songs — especially sing-songy ones such as “Wyclef Jean” and “With That” — found him lazily rapping along to himself via prerecorded tracks.
A wholesome contrast, Jaden Smith — son of actors Will and Jada Smith — rapped about icons, dreams coming true and other Hollywood themes in his opening set; nothing too heavy, but he still sounded like a lightweight vocalist compared to his booming, futuristic beats.
Cole is no powerhouse rapper, either. His delivery is rather atonal and monotonous.
His talents are more as a lyricist and street-poet persona, traits on bright display for this tour.
An album all about addictions — the title alternately refers to “kids on drugs,” “kings overdose” or “kill our demons” — “KOD” provided a thematic, meaningful backbone to Wednesday’s 90-minute set, something missing in Cole’s earlier outings.
“For some people, it’s alcohol, dope, pills, money or sex,” he said in explaining the album. He got a little too heavy-handed with the messaging by show’s end, but sparked some powerful moments in the interim.
After hitting the fans with two older favorites, “A Tale of 2 Citiez” and “Fire Squad,” to get things jumping early on, Cole dove into the “KOD” pool with the eerie “Photograph” (about selfies) and the rat-a-tat-tat-rhythmed gem “The Cut Off” (about drugs). The latter tune also showcased his large, excellent band, which remained hidden through the whole show.
Cole kept the stage all to himself, sandwiched between rather ho-hum, box-shaped video screens and cloud-shaped “KOD” letters. He isn’t quite dynamic enough of a performer to command the stage all by his lonesome, though; not the way Kendrick Lamar, Kanye West or (with help from glitzy visuals) Drake have done on their arena tours.
He mostly just rambled around from side to side casually. He would clutch his mike stand when things got really intense, like in “Motiv8” and “ATM.” So you can imagine how laid back he seemed in tamer numbers such as “Ville Mentality.”
Cole’s lyrics and banter sometimes provided the missing intensity. The jazzy new epic “Brackets” decried racial inequalities in government spending, while “Love Yourz” preached self-respect with string arrangements.
That’s not exactly the stuff of summer party jams, but plenty of fun songs were still dropped in here and there, including “Work Out” mid-show and “G.O.M.D.” and “No Role Modelz” toward the end.
Those weren’t the show highlights this time around, though, a sign that Cole is growing along with his audience.