J. Cole Takes Command of Los Angeles in First of Two Staples Center Shows

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J. Cole performs onstage at Staples Center on Aug. 24, 2018 in Los Angeles.

The first clue that J. Cole fans were in store for a great evening was revealed as lucky early birds filed into Los Angeles’ Staples Center on the opening night of the artist’s two-date KOD Tour stopover (Aug. 24-25).   

Ten minutes before new Dreamville duo EarthGang opened their set at 7:30 p.m., a hooded figure appeared on the soft red-lit stage. After rapping a snippet of a song, the figure welcomed patrons, announced the lineup and declared, “Make some motherfucking noise!” before sauntering back offstage to screams and applause from the still-filling house. It was none other than Cole as his alter ego Kill Edward.    

That tantalizing appetizer set the vibe for a fulfilling evening of spirituality, uplifting discourse, social consciousness, rollicking rap-alongs — and downright fun. Also bringing their own lively contributions to the evening: special guest Young Thug and Jaden Smith.   

The Live Nation-produced KOD Tour, in support of Cole’s fifth studio album (and fifth consecutive No. 1 on the Billboard 200) of the same name, concludes its Los Angeles stopover Saturday night (Aug. 25). Kicking off in Miami on Aug. 9, the tour will head to Las Vegas (Sept. 7), Nashville (Sept. 17), Chicago (Sept. 22), New York (Oct. 1) and Washington, D.C. (Oct. 8) before wrapping in Boston (Oct. 10).    

Here are some memorable takeaways from Friday night’s L.A. show:   

Making an impact — even before taking the stage: Before packing the arena inside, long lines of fans snaked throughout the Staples Center hallways as they queued up to buy KOD and other J. Cole merch, from T-shirts and bomber jackets to windbreakers. Then, as stagehands prepared for Cole’s impending arrival, a black curtain dropped down eliciting a crescendo of screams and shouts. Listed on the front were the three KOD titles: Kids on Drugs, King Overdosed and Kill Our Dreams.

The Cole Effect: Making his second arena tour after 2017’s 4 Your Eyez Only World Tour, Cole opened his L.A. stopover with “Window Pain.” Then he effortlessly held court for nearly two hours as he delivered selections and memories from his five-album catalog. Striding back and forth across the stage (the live band sat well behind him) with two sets of white KOD balloons floating above him, Cole drew fever-pitch reaction for the songs “No Role Modelz” (which closed his show), “KOD,” “Apparently” and “Fire Squad.”

During the latter, images of Hitler, Donald Trump, Elvis Presley and Barbecue Becky (who called Oakland, Calif., police on two innocent black men hosting a barbecue) appeared on the video screen. Along with such additional KOD faves as “Kevin’s Heart,” “ATM” and “Motiv8,” Cole took rap-along fans down memory lane with “Nobody’s Perfect” featuring Missy Elliott, “G.O.M.D.” and “Wet Dreamz.”

Throughout his show, Cole also emphasized that KOD is about pain and learning the ability to deal with it. “The one thing I’m learning as I get older is that what makes us healthy spiritually and mentally is the way we process pain,” he explained. “Everybody goes through some kind of pain but nobody shows us how to actually process that pain.” He later underscored that message with a piercing performance of “1985 (Intro to the Fall Off),” his KOD reply to callouts from young rappers like Lil Pump and 6ix9ine.

Beyond his music, Cole’s ability to connect one-on-one with fans has played a key role in his career trajectory — and was in full effect last night as well. Before segueing into “Work Out” and “Can’t Get Enough,” Cole talked about being “cut deep” when early Twitter critics carped that they didn’t think he could make a hit.

Cole went on to dispel comments he’s also heard about being an overnight success. “There’s no such thing as overnight,” he said. “It’s a myth … you just keep putting one foot in front of the other” to build a foundation. “I’m blessed to have two shows here in L.A. in the same theater where LeBron James is about to play,” Cole added to cheers. “It’s mind blowing.”

Young in spirit: Special guest Young Thug further amped up the anticipatory Staples audience via set opener “With That” featuring Duke from the former’s acclaimed 2015 album Barter 6. As images of him onstage pulsated inside cube-sized video screens positioned on either side of the stage, Young Thug reeled off a seemingly unending string of his hits and guest features. These included “Check,” “Best Friend,” T.I.’s  2014 “All About the Money” and Travis Scott’s 2016 track “Pick Up the Phone.”  At one point during the show, Young Thug — wearing dark shades and a black jacket emblazoned with the word chaos in capital letters — proclaimed, “This is for the real fans in this motherfucker” before diving into “Family Don’t Matter.”  Hands down, the audience reserved its biggest roar for Young Thug’s performance closer “Lifestyle.” As the video cube flashed hand signs above the words young, stoner and life, chanting fans went wild as they rapped along.

Ones to keep watching: Signed to J. Cole’s Dreamville last year, the colorful and energetic duo of Johnny Venus and Doctur Dot aptly illustrated why they first caught Cole’s attention — as well as a growing contingent of fans. Flanked by stage-level video screens, the pair jumped and hopped through cuts such as the Cole-produced “Voodoo” and “Mediate.” The latter, with its timely hook “looking for peace in America,” took on even more urgency when Dreamville roster mate J.I.D., who is featured on the song, joined the duo onstage.

Following EarthGang, Jaden Smith also held his own before a very responsive audience. Performing such popular tracks as “Ghost,” “Icon,” “Diamond” and “Ninety,” the slender powerhouse had everyone out of their seats as he alternately strode and high-stepped his way back and forth across the stage. Smith also made effective use of his resplendent videos that accompanied each song—from sunsets and ocean scenes to Smith sitting in a Tesla Model X and garbed in a white Batman costume.