The rapper bonds with crowd over shared pain

Early into his set at a packed Schottenstein Center on Sunday, Sept. 23, rapper J. Cole summarized his latest album in one sentence. “It’s really about one thing, and that’s pain,” he said of KOD, an acronym with multiple meanings: Kids on Drugs, King Overdosed, Kill Our Demons.

Pain is a theme easily gathered from the 12-track project, which finds Cole exploring the ways in which we numb ourselves with drugs, money, social media and sex. Though relevant, it’s a familiar topic that can get stale if not presented in a fresh package. And Cole has been criticized for, at best, not living up to his potential as an MC, and, at worse, not being as “deep” or as “woke” as he or his fans would have you believe.

But then you see him perform live and realize none of that matters.

The sleek video screens, “KOD” set pieces suspended from the ceiling, and live band positioned behind Cole were nice, supplemental touches. But Cole, wearing a simple white T-shirt and shorts, carried the entire show on charisma and earnestness.

Cole has never shied away from sharing his personal flaws, including a tendency to be too materialistic. He has also been open about his personal pain, witnessing the violence, poverty, drug use and thwarted dreams in his hometown of Fayetteville, North Carolina.

So it was fitting he revisited those subjects with “Window Pain” and “A Tale of 2 Citiez” at the start of the concert.

A powerful complement would have been a performance of “Once an Addict,” his most personal track on KOD. In the song, he addresses his mother’s struggle with alcohol abuse, which had a traumatic effect on him. But the track was noticeably absent from his set.

Cole did get candid with “The Cut Off,” prefacing the tune with a brief speech about severing ties with toxic people — even if they were once close allies. It’s one of two songs on the album featuring Kill Edward, Cole’s alter ego. It’s essentially Cole singing in a distorted voice, turning away from the audience — Kill Edward is shy, the rapper said onstage — and it sounds as terrible live as it does on record. It may be Cole’s response to criticism he has received for not having guest artists on his last three albums, but the jab is not worth the result.

The energy noticeably increased as Cole launched into a string of KOD tracks, beginning with bouncy standout “ATM,” featuring a rapid-fire flow from the rapper. The crowd, who, as a rule, knew every word to every song, gravitated toward “Brackets,” Cole’s complaint about paying taxes without seeing change, or, worse, seeing detrimental results in society. His verses were met with applause.

Following the song, Cole engaged in humorous banter about the topic, as well as public backlash he received — “on the Twitters” — during his early career. His relaxed, conversational tone was refreshing, given the numerous other artists providing canned statements — “Columbus is lit!” or “OH-IO!” — on tour. There’s no denying his intense connection with his fan base, and they hung on his every word.

A touching moment occurred after Cole performed a series of old classics. Sitting on a stool, he talked to the audience further about processing pain in a healthy way. Even if one is critical of his solutions — he’s received flak for his simple “meditate, don’t medicate” directive on the new album — it’s impossible not to see his passion for helping his fans, most of whom are relatively young.

Similarly, calling out the Ohio State students and telling them never to give up is not profound advice, but the audience took it to heart. And, after all, he could be encouraging them to be destructive.

Also, leave it to Cole to respond to disses from younger rappers with helpful advice. “Come here, lil man, let me talk wit ya,” he raps on “1985 (Intro to ‘The Fall Off’),” which he delivered a cappella toward the end of the show. In the song, he encourages them to keep touring, spend money wisely and think about their fleeting popularity among certain demographics.

“These white kids love that you don’t give a fuck,” he raps. “They wanna be black and think your song is how it feels. … One day, them kids that's listening gon' grow up.”

It’s appropriate Cole saved “No Role Modelz” for his encore. The crowd sang the line “no role models to speak of” in unison, but their reception of J. Cole throughout the night proved differently.