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J. Cole's focus on new material pays off at the Xcel

J. Cole at the 2015 Soundset Music Festival.

J. Cole at the 2015 Soundset Music Festival. Mark Vancleave, special to the Star Tribune.

J. Cole got to St. Paul a day later than he'd planned.

The North Carolina rapper, producer, and Dreamville Records head encountered “transportation issues at the Canadian border” last week, delaying his show at the X, originally scheduled for Friday, till Saturday night. But despite the wait, Cole delivered the impassioned and often powerful live experience his Minnesota fans were hoping for.

Cole performed on a small stage in the center of the arena, clad in an orange prison jumpsuit. Early in the set, he explained his intentions of performing his latest album, last December’s 4 Your Eyez Only, in its entirety. “If I’m really saying some shit on these songs, some shit that’s from the heart and some shit that’s important to me, then shouldn’t I be performing all these bitches at the shows?” he asked the Xcel audience, who, of course, approved.

Cole also called performing lesser-known album tracks at such a large venue “one of the scariest things as a performer,” but over the past decade he's built a devoted enough fan base that he could probably play one of the least-known songs from his first mixtape and a significant percentage of the audience would still know every word.

Indeed, he more or less proved that to be the case. “I always try to find a moment in the show where I can sneak in, slip in, slide in an older song that might be appreciated,” he said, proceeding to search for an audience member who would know all the lyrics to whatever he played next. He found that fan in a woman wearing a Dreamville t-shirt. As it turned out, she did know all the words to his next song, “Lights Please,” which originally appeared on his 2009 mixtape The Warm Up and, later, his 2011 debut album, Cole World: The Sideline Story. He would follow that up with three other older songs (“Can’t Get Enough,” “Nobody’s Perfect,” and “Forbidden Fruit”) before returning to 4 Your Eyez Only material.

That first series of non-4 Your Eyez Only songs, as well as a later stretch when he performed four cuts from 2014’s 2014 Forest Hills Drive, was well received, but Cole was more powerfully attached to his new material, taking time to explain a number of the songs’ significance. Most notably, there was “Neighbors,” whose genesis Cole talked about for nearly 10 minutes. In March 2016, a SWAT team raided Cole’s North Carolina home after a racist neighbor called police, suspecting that the building was essentially a trap house and not the legitimate residence of a superstar rapper. Later, he closed his set with 4 Your Eyez Only’s ambitious eight-minute finale and title track, possibly the most convincing display of Cole’s talent as a storyteller that he’s ever released.

Cole spent too much time talking between songs occasionally, but his focus on 4 Your Eyez Only worked overall, revealing the album’s layers and complexities to the fullest extent. And his live band, situated apart form the rapper on the usual Xcel performance stage, did its subtle musicality justice. If some fans were disappointed that Cole skipped past hits like “Work Out” or “Crooked Smile,” he made up for it by deepening their love for his current material.

Setlist

For Whom the Bell Tolls
Immortal
Deja Vu
Ville Mentality
Change
Lights Please
Nobody’s Perfect
Can’t Get Enough
Forbidden Fruit
Neighbors
Foldin Clothes
She’s Mine, Pt. 2
Love Yourz
Wet Dreamz
A Tale of 2 Citiez
G.O.M.D.
Power Trip
No Role Modelz
4 Your Eyez Only