J Cole, Arena Birmingham - review

It was a night of political statements and high-energy hip-hop as award-winning artist J Cole landed in Birmingham.

J Cole
J Cole

More than 10,000 people packed into the Arena Birmingham, formerly the Barclaycard Arena, last night to see one of hip-hop’s biggest names ply his trade in the UK.

In America J Cole is hip-hop royalty, combining his unique wordplay with a stellar singing voice, he has been nominated for countless awards, including five Grammys, and is a five-time BET hip-hop award winner.

But any fears about Cole’s popularity in the UK were alleviated before the night had even started, with thousands queuing around Birmingham’s canals just to get into the venue.

The first act on stage around 8pm was Ari Lennox, a singer-songwriter from Washington who, like the two other warm-up acts that followed, is signed to Cole’s record label Dreamville Records.

She is in the early stages of her career and is pretty unknown in the UK, but she sang her heart out and the crowd reacted in turn.

She also helped to set the stage for what was always going to be a politically-charged night, telling the crowd: “There’s some f***** up stuff going on in America right now. Trump ruining everything.”

Next on stage were hip-hop duo Earthgang, who, with their high-energy brash hip-hop and questionable fashion sense (one was wearing a ski mask), continued the theme of the night. Like Ari they did not mince their words as they sang a song that quite simply went “f*** Donald Trump”.

J.I.D was the final warm up act before Cole himself hit the stage around 9.30pm.

Stepping out from behind prison bars wearing an inmate’s orange jumpsuit, Cole opened up with For Whom the Bell Tolls (no relation to the Metallica classic).

His tour, 4 Your Eyez Only, is named after the album sharing the same name, of which For Whom The Bell Tolls is the first track.

Following the album’s track list he then wowed the loud Birmingham crowd with Immortal, Deja Vu and Ville Mentality, using the latter to tell the packed-out arena to spend the night living for the moment - the definition of what is a ‘ville mentality’.

And live for the moment they did as, after singing Change with Ari Lennox, Cole dipped into some of his older tracks.

There was no wiping the smiles off people’s faces as they got to sing their heart out to the likes of Lights Please, Nobody’s Perfect, Can’t Get Enough and Forbidden Fruit.

But Cole was in a jumpsuit and had his band were playing behind prison bars for a reason, he wanted to make a statement about the treatment of black people in America.

With the song Neighbours he told the story of how he had fulfilled his dream of buying a home in a ‘nice neighbourhood’ - aka ‘white neighbourhood’ according to Cole - in his hometown of North Carolina.

From here he set up a recording studio, having numerous artists and producers coming through his front door every day.

This led his neighbours to think he was selling drugs and, as shown on bigs screens in the arena with CCTV footage, ended with more than a dozen SWAT officers armed with heavy assault guns busting down Cole’s door and ripping his home apart.

He did not spell his views out like Ari and Earthgang before him, but that did not make his point any less subtle.

Cole played four songs off his 2014 Forest Hills Drive album before finishing with Power Trip, a song about not only his love for a woman but his love for hip-hop.

The night ended how it started, with a political statement, as Cole’s encore tune was No Role Modelz, a song that features a clip of a George Bush speech midway through. The clip was projected on the big screens inside the arena but was met with a chorus of boos.

It was a young crowd, and chances are they didn’t know what they were booing, but Cole asked them to live for the moment - and live for the moment they did.

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