J. Cole / Young Thug / EarthGang Scotiabank Arena, Toronto ON, October 4

J. Cole / Young Thug / EarthGang Scotiabank Arena, Toronto ON, October 4
Photo: Wendy Wei
It's fitting that the illuminated, rectangular columns propped tall on either side of the "KOD Tour" stage resemble larger-than-life cellular bars. J. Cole is all about trying to connect.
The wordsmith's continued evolution into Serious Artist has pushed him to pen concept albums and ditch fancy attire and fireworks. He has stripped away the famous guest cameos on his records, and delved further into lone-wolf territory with something really important to say.
So Cole's latest record, the April-released KOD, is a three-pronged acronym for Kids On Drugs, King Overdosed and Kill Our Demons. Weighty stuff that dissects our addictions to intoxicants, money, sex, social media, and mumblecore.
Cole's earnestness, which has been on full display during this 34-date North American arena romp, has caused a divide among rap heads.
Critics have dismissed him as "fake deep" and bemoaned his recent penchant of picking sleepier beats. Diehard supporters, however — and there are legions of them — have crowned the verbally dexterous, doggedly determined kid from North Carolina as the torchbearer for edutainment.
When KOD dropped this spring, the album broke Taylor Swift's record for most Apple Music streams in a day. Major.
The 33-year-old grew up on the Golden Age essentials, so for the live rendition of his excellent takedown of irreverent club rappers on "1985 (Intro to 'The Fall Off')," he chops off all backing tracks and spits the entire winding verse a cappella. It's an impactful moment in the show's encore segment, and it underscores the MC's greatest weapon: Even after burning through 20 songs from his catalogue, dude can straight spit.
The seemingly effortless rhythm in Cole's nimble flow is actually more impressive than the noble if basic messages he's trying to drill across (you can't take material goods with you when you die, keep chasing you dreams). And that wordplay, when dancing over a banging beat, gives his concert its loftiest highs. "KOD," "ATM," "Fire Squad," "Can't Get Enough" and "Neighbors" all fall into that category.
Stark is the contrast between Cole's mic control and that of half-interested opener Young Thug, whose dynamic, unique persona on record doesn't spring to life onstage. Thugger kinda coasts through his warmup set, which culminates with the infectious "Lifestyle." Much better is undercard EarthGang, an energetic duo whose star should only rise now that they've signed to Cole's Dreamville imprint.
Intent on his followers hearing his words, J. Cole himself keeps the frills to a minimum. The letters "KOD" are blown up into massive balloons and draped diagonally from the top of the stage. An oval-shaped video screen backs the performer, and the aforementioned columns project 4K imagery to match each tune's theme: Benjamins for "ATM," flames for "Fire Squad," and so on. He wears a white T-shirt, and his face is shrouded in dreads and a beard. No jewelry.
Cole frontloads his act with new material, saving older hits like "Nobody's Perfect," "Wet Dreamz," and "Power Trip" for the night's crescendo. He also breaks more than once to slip into motivational speaker mode, delivering mini lectures on overcoming discouragement and depression. He reminds that we all make mistakes, we all suffer pain, we all hold dreams.
Some will draw inspiration from these earnest diatribes. Others might just grow more antsy for the next banging beat.

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