One of the most endearing attributes of J. Cole’s career has always been his transparency. For over a decade, the Carolina rapper has amassed a legion of followers and a seat in the pantheon of hip-hop because he makes listeners feel like they know him through his music and his common-man lifestyle. This familiarity creates a sense of kinship within his fanbase, and as 19,000 filed into Brooklyn’s Barclays Center on Saturday night (Oct. 1) for his sold-out Off-Season tour, it felt like a family reunion. Kicking off in Miami — with the help of special guests Drake and Future — the trek marks J. Cole’s return to live performing since his KOD Tour back in 2018. 21 Savage and burgeoning rapper Morray also join the Dreamville artist along with comedian and social media star Druski.
Raised in the same North Carolina hometown as Cole, Morray exploded on the rap scene this past year with his viral track “Quicksand,” and instantly engaged the crowd with his contagious energy, fun-loving spirit, and impressive vocal chops (worth noting: he Morray didn’t use a backtrack for any of his songs). His set was the perfect prelude for the high-level performing that the night would have in store, with 21 Savage following shortly after and performing fan-favorite songs like “10 Freaky Girls,” “X,” and “Knife Talk,” all while dressed in a metallic silver jumpsuit that matched the shining dagger that was erected at center stage. After 21’s set concluded and Druski delivered a hilarious MC routine, the crowd was primed and ready for the man of the hour to emerge.
Staying true to the basketball theme present throughout the album, Cole peeled back the curtain yet again as we follow him from his green room to the stage like a star player taking to the court while he spits his song “Punchin’ The Clock” shrouded by darkness. Then, borrowing the 90s era Chicago Bulls’ intro music, a video montage of Cole’s highlights from his Rwandan professional basketball debut played before the curtain dropped. Wearing a Dreamville jersey in a throwback New Jersey Nets colorway, J. Cole was welcomed with deafening applause as he stood in front of an inclined basketball court and giant, flaming hoop that paid homage to the album’s cover art.
— Barclays Center (@barclayscenter) October 3, 2021
The theme of the night was bars. After performing “95 South,” Cole took a moment to talk about how he wanted to really rap for the Brooklyn audience, especially considering New York City is where hip-hop originated. “I didn’t want to run from the bars, I wanted y’all to hear the bars in a location where n–s be scared to give the bars, and I’ll tell you why,” he explained from the stage. “When you come on tour, there be a lot of pressure. N–s want to hear the hits, and we got those too. But if it’s cool with y’all, and this is New York City, the birthplace of the bars, is it cool if I give y’all some bars on this show?” And Cole did just that, immediately breaking into “Applying Pressure” as the crowd roared and the hoop behind him burst into flames yet again.
As the show progressed, Cole jumped back and forth between the high wattage verbiage of “The Off-Season” and staples in his catalog like “Power Trip,” “Can’t Get Enough,” and “Mr. Nice Watch,” all backed by a stellar live band and vocalists. The quality of the show mirrored the energy of “The Off-Season,” his sixth studio album, with Cole delivering every line with precision and a tactical efficiency, while still creating intimate moments that harkened back to the days of his Dollar and a Dream tour nearly a decade prior. There was even a special moment when the rapper performed a deep cut from his “Friday Night Lights” mixtape, “Back To The Topic Freestyle,” a song he said only eight or nine people might know. Cole also tapped fellow Dreamville artist Bas to perform his new single “The Jackie” and “Down Bad” off the imprints compilation album “Revenge of the Dreamers 3.”
Before performing the emotional “Let Go My Hand,” Cole shared another moment of unvarnished honesty with those in attendance, saying he never wants to reach a point in his career where he doesn’t feel comfortable performing songs that mean a lot to him. “I don’t want to run away from the fear of giving y’all some shit that’s really from my heart,” he said. “I don’t want to run away from that feeling.” That feeling was shared by thousands who hummed for him when his voice began to crack. He would later close his set by performing his multi-platinum song “Middle Child.”
J. Cole’s Brooklyn stop for his Off-Season proved that his bars are still alive and well, if that was even still in question. It’s only right that such a lyrical showing happened in the Barclays Center, where the colossal shadows of Jay-Z and Biggie Smalls’ honorary jerseys hang in the rafters. As concert-goers exited the Barclays Center, one could still hear Cole’s lyrics being murmured by fans making their way home — the true meaning of resonance.