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December 3, 2013 5:10 pm
When the FT interviewed Jermaine Cole on his first trip to the UK in 2011, the North Carolina rapper was the very acme of politeness, the sort of upstanding young man a father would be delighted to have his daughter bring home.
“He won’t be like that now!” chortled a bunch of youths to whom I relayed this information at the Hammersmith Apollo. With two US number one albums under his belt, J Cole is on the fringe of rap’s elite, snapping at the heels of his mentor Jay-Z. The personable tyro I met two years ago now inhabits a world of big bucks and bigger egos, a milieu in which superstar rappers exhibit all the modesty of a Roman emperor. Jay-Z, from his latest album: “You in the presence of a king/Scratch that, you in the presence of a god.”
A triumphal blaze of sound from his backing musicians announced Cole’s stage entrance at the Apollo. Thousands of smartphones were hoisted aloft to capture the demiurge in all his glory. But the rapper cut a less grandiose figure: black-clad, a modest chain around his neck, acknowledging the applause with one hand while holding a Styrofoam cup in the other. A Styrofoam cup? Shouldn’t that have been a jewel-encrusted goblet brimming with the choicest liquor?
No one likes a goodie two-shoes, least of all hip-hop fans. Thus Cole doesn’t go out of his way to portray himself as the nicest rapper since Will Smith. He spat rhymes at the Apollo with aggressive attack, his voice growing hoarser through the evening at the effort. By the end, on the Philly-soul-sampling “Kenny Lofton”, he sounded like a gruff old-school East Coast emcee. Meanwhile the hysterical tone he brought to his “song for my haters”, “Blow Up”, was worthy of Eminem.
Traditional rap subjects were to the fore: weed, women and song. At one point Cole claimed to have been drinking Hennessy all evening. But his self-command suggested that the contents of his Styrofoam cup were more shandy than brandy. His rap technique was impressively fluent and wide-ranging, from the southern rap-referencing “LAnd of the Snakes” to his homage to one of New York’s finest rappers, “Let Nas Down”.
One of the highlights of the set, “Rich Niggaz”, found Cole lit by an inferno of pulsing red lights, calmly denouncing rappers who flaunt their wealth over the heavenly sound of a harp sample. It was a superb dramatisation of the temptations of fame, and how tonight’s main attraction has so far resisted them.
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