J. Cole
Lincoln Theatre, Raleigh
Saturday, July 19, 2014

In early July, the Fayetteville-bred Roc Nation emcee and producer J. Cole announced that he would be bringing his second-annual “Dollar & a Dream Tour” to a “secret location” in Raleigh on Saturday, celebrating the five-year anniversary of his breakthrough The Warm Up mixtape. Narrowing the show’s location down to the Lincoln Theatre didn’t take much work—some look at websites and some calendars, some assumptions.
Still, on Saturday afternoon, some of Cole’s dedicated fans didn’t prove themselves quite so savvy, pestering local venues like Kings Barcade with phone calls and online messages. “Dear NC, J Cole is definitely not playing at Kings tonight. Plz stop calling & messaging us! Kings tweeted after receiving a barrage of inquiries. “We have a Beard & Mustache Competition tonight!”

The correct location was eventually leaked, causing a few thousand Cole fans to descend on East Cabarrus Street in anticipation of the Grammy-nominated rap phenom’s arrival. They were ready to put their two $1 bills to use—one for entry, the other for Cole to sign before his increased security whisked him away from the mob and into the venue. Before he arrived in Raleigh and even announced where the concert would be held, someone showed him pictures and videos of the large crowds. “Damn, who told y’all?!,” he tweeted. He finally announced that he would be doing two shows that night. (Cole would later tell me that he threw around the idea of doing three shows, but he could only make two work due to some timing conflicts.)

Two days before Raleigh’s secret shows, Cole tried to do back-to-back gigs at Miami’s Grand Central, but after the first round of wristbands were sold, around 2,000 fans remained outside of the venue for the second batch. Pressure from the police and the fire marshal to disperse of the large crowd forced Cole to cancel the second show. Raleigh’s police proved more tolerant of Cole’s home-state crowd and allowed everyone to stick around for the second round of The Warm Up’s run-through.

Six months after Cole released The Warm Up in 2009, Cole hit UNC-Chapel Hill’s Memorial Hall stage, fresh from the release of Jay Z’s The Blueprint 3. Cole’s new Roc Nation boss let him drop a ceremonial, self-congratulatory verse on “A Star Is Born.” But on that night in Chapel Hill, that song took a backseat to The Warm Up’s prophetic “Grown Simba,” which sounded even more meaningful on Saturday’s Lincoln Theatre stage in front of the people who helped him land consecutive No. 1 albums (2011’s Cole World: The Sideline Story and last year’s Born Sinner) on the Billboard 200 chart.

In a letter Cole posted on his Dreamvillain website, he wrote “The Warm Up is a declaration of dedication to Greatness. Told from the perspective of a kid who wants more than what his city has to offer him.” This is how respectability politics should go, but in hip-hop’s realm, the only real way to be a true arbiter of “respectability” is to show skills. To say that Cole does this effortlessly takes away from his work ethic, to say that he overachieves says that he’s reached a ceiling. “I rededicate myself to greatness,” he proclaims in his letter.

For the gushy folks in Saturday’s dual audiences, this rededication might mean more approachable songs like “Dreams,” and “Ladies” or two of the non-The Warm Up songs that Cole performed, “Crooked Smile” and “Power Trip.” But for the rugged listener, it means more hot-tempered cuts like “Dead Presidents II” and “”Can I Live,” which he revisited with the same intensity he barked back at Kendrick Lamar on last year’s “TKO” remix. The dichotomy has led to much divisiveness among his critics, but by keeping a foot in both rap worlds, Cole can possibly double his worth.