Cole seems too big to be contained by the word “artist.” He is a producing, lyric-writing, Grammy award-winning music machine who has amassed a cult following since his first release, “Cole World: The Sideline Story” (2011). The album debuted at No. 1 on the U.S. Billboard 200 chart, and things have only gone up from there. His five subsequent albums would also top the charts (most of these debuting at No. 1). His most recent release, “The Off-Season” (2021), scored Cole his sixth consecutive No. 1 album in the country — so what better time to treat the fans to a concert?
On Oct. 1, Cole embarked on the fifth stop of his Off-Season Tour, landing in Boston’s TD Garden. The venue brimmed with fans clamoring to get through security and to their seats (not before providing proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test). The arena was warm, noisy and alive, marking a return to some degree of normalcy.
During the first half, Fayetteville-based newcomer Morray (whom Cole later touted as the “next one out” of their hometown) and fan favorite 21 Savage, who won a Grammy with Cole in 2020 for their collaboration “A Lot,” entertained the crowd. Savage was a dynamic performer, rapping every word to hits like “Red Opps” (2015) — it was admittedly surreal to see the star in the flesh. A large knife-shaped prop at center stage complemented the performance.
Around 10 p.m. (the concert began promptly at 8 p.m.), rabid fans began chanting “J! Cole!” to summon the artist, who broke into a live band-equipped rendition of “95 South,” the first track off the concert’s namesake album. Performances were sans theatrics, save for some fog and a flaming basketball hoop, a reference to the “Off-Season” album cover; Cole is such a captivating performer that simply pacing the stage while spitting lyrics drew the eyes of thousands of fans.
The concert felt strangely personal, seeing as Cole included something for everybody — I especially enjoyed his performance of “Let Go My Hand” (2021), a dreamy, introspective track and one of my personal favorites. For the diehard fans, classics like the upbeat “Can’t Get Enough” (2011) and soulful “Power Trip” (2013) were played at full volume; newer fans were pleased to find that Cole covered nine of the 12 tracks off his most recent album, including “Amari,” which has amassed over 16 million views on its music video to date. And, of course, we can’t forget classics like “G.O.M.D.” and “No Role Modelz,” off the triple platinum-certified “Forest Hills Drive“ (2014).
The artist was sure to engage his audience, once through a call-and-response exercise, and through several requests to raise their lights high (well, the flashlights on their phones). He was also strangely earnest with the fans, assuring them that if they didn’t know every lyric to every song, that was alright. This is not to downplay moments when the whole arena chanted lyrics together, of course. When Savage joined Cole onstage to perform “A Lot,” the crowd went crazy, screaming “How much money you got?/ How many problems you got?” in perfect time.
The basketball court-styled stage was stamped with the word “DREAMER,” a testament to Cole’s journey to stardom. This small detail made me strangely emotional throughout the concert, serving as a constant reminder of how far this self-titled “dreamer” has come, and what an inspiration he continues to be for the next generation of music makers.