SALT LAKE CITY — Near the end of a one-hour, 38-minute set, the spotlight shined bright on rap star J. Cole, as he squatted for a seat in front of thousands of roaring fans at Vivint Arena on Saturday night.
“I want to talk to y’all for second,” he said gripping the microphone, with the stage lights dimming. “I don’t want to talk too much because I know how I get but I do want to talk to y’all.”
The mood suddenly became more intimate, with soft piano keys shadowing his words that followed the performance of his 2016 hit song “Neighbors.”
“I want to take it back to earlier, when I was telling y’all the meaning behind this whole 'KOD' album, but I want to go a little deeper with you and tell you what it’s really about,” he revealed. “The whole album is about one thing: pain.
“But one thing I’m learning as I get older, as I’m becoming just more of the man I’m trying to be,” he continued. “I’m seeing for myself, at least, is what makes us healthy and when I say healthy, I don’t mean physically, I’m talking about mentally … spiritually. What makes us healthy is our ability to deal with pain and to process that.”
Even at the height of his rap career, the 33-year-old, Fayetteville, North Carolina native doesn’t shy away from tackling important issues in society, such as mental health, drug addiction, infidelity, alcoholism and much more through "KOD," his latest body of work. Hence, the title, "KOD," which serves as an acronym for Kill Our Demons, King Overdosed and Kids On Drugs.
If local fans weren’t aware of the meaning behind the album before Saturday night’s show, they certainly were exposed during the event.
All three titles were listed on the large dark curtain that he stood behind on stage before opening the Salt Lake City show with the intro to "KOD" the album, followed by “Window Pain (Outro).” His evolution as an artist was on display in all 22 songs of the performance. Not only in his physical appearance, which shifted from a low haircut to long dreadlocks over the years, but more importantly his lyrical content.
"KOD" sets him apart from his first four studio albums and three mixtapes.
“From where he started to where he is, it’s been a journey,” said McKay Johnson, a 25-year-old Utah native sitting in Section 17 of Vivint Arena. “It’s been a story. Every single one of his tracks is a story; it’s not a breakdown of where he’s at currently. It’s a story of where he’s been, where he’s going and the journey about it.”
Not everyone is a fan of the deepness in his music, though. The "KOD Tour" was 17-year-old Acey Orton’s first live concert and he was there with his high school classmate, Kanyon Lamb. Although Orton remains a longtime fan of J. Cole, he prefered his lighter side in previous projects.
“I think it’s pretty quality, but I liked his other albums better, though,” Orton admitted.
Lamb, 17, felt the opposite as he sees the musical maturation.
“I just think that as he’s got bigger as an artist, he’s started to tackle those controversial issues,” said Lamb, a senior at Panguitch High School. “So now he’s got more power in his albums like the thing with ‘Friends’ in that song and how he’s talking about the black community.”
I’ve also witnessed that transformation. No, I don’t know Cole personally, but we did have a personal interaction eight years ago in Kalamazoo, Mich. on the eve of his worldwide superstardom.
Less than a week before the release of his popular "Friday Night Lights" mixtape, J. Cole performed at Miller Auditorium on the campus of Western Michigan University during my senior year of college on Nov. 6, 2010.
I sat near the stage, covering the show and I met him backstage after he rocked the house. At the time, he was still a young artist touring colleges and looking to separate himself from other rising artists such as Big Sean and Wiz Khalifa.
“I feel like if I just continue to be myself then the difference will show,” J. Cole told me in 2010.“You know, all these guys are super talented, but all our stories are different and we got different things to say so I mean, as long as I stay true to myself and not try to be like anybody else I feel like the difference between us will shine.”
No disrespect to those artists, but J. Cole was right.
Both of those other guys have experienced a great deal of success throughout that eight-year span, but he is certainly ahead of those two with his steady advancement. Hip-hop has also experienced somewhat of a renaissance among the elite lyricists such as Kendrick Lamar, Drake, Wale, Chance The Rapper and others who deliver substance in their artistry and Cole in certainly in that pantheon of musicians.
If you don’t feel that way, I’m sure the "KOD Tour" will make you a believer.
Go check it out and you may leave inspired. Salt Lake City attendees had a reason to be.
“It’s no overnight (success),” J. Cole told Vivint Arena. “If somebody in this room right now had the magical abilities to snap their fingers and as soon as they snap their fingers, when you wake up tomorrow morning, everything you ever wanted in life would be there as soon as you wake up, right? If somebody could do that, trust me when I tell you, you don’t want it like that.”