J. Cole

St. John's University Welcomes Back Its Hero, J. Cole

J. Cole returns to his alma mater, St. John's University, for a special show. 

It wasn't nothing like that first time J. Cole returned to his alma mater, St. John's University, as a rapper. At the 2010 Spring Fling concert, Jermaine Cole was still the buzzworthy North Carolina MC Jay Z co-signed with a heap of heat on his two mixtapes The Come Up and The Warm Up. Secondly, Cole was still rocking a buzz cut.

Five years later, the six-foot-three rapper is looking out at the sea of students and alumni packing the Carnesseca Arena and soaking in the adoration. Presented by the Haraya Club (the pan-African student coalition where Cole was once president), the intimate concert on Thursday night (April 9) showed the former Communications major in a different light. The Cole who graduated magna cum laude with a business minor was no longer worrying about being broke, getting a deal or bagging the girl of his dreams.

SEE ALSO: SXSW 2015: J. Cole’s Dreamville Show Is What Dreams Are Made Of

These days, the confident spitter is caking, reportedly engaged and the boss of his Dreamville label, alongside fellow STJ alum, Ibrahim "Ib" Hamad.

Tonight, Team Dreamville is in attendance. Cole's artists Bas, Cozz and Omen rocked the mic as his opening acts—a smart move given Cole's mission as heard on "G.O.M.D.": "Dreamville, give us a year we'll be on every show/Yeah, f-ck n-gga I'm very sure."

As the man of the night hit the stage, smartphones shot up to capture Cole's return. He's playful on stage, commenting on the University's upgrades since he graduated and making jokes about being a "thirsty n-gga" on Instagram. He's also singing a good amount, especially for cuts off his third album 2014 Forest Hills Drive, which hit platinum last month.

SEE ALSO: Review: A St. John’s University Grad Reflects On J. Cole’s ‘Dollar And A Dream Tour II’ NYC Show & His Humble Beginnings

Tracks like "Wet Dreamz," Tale of 2 Citiez," "Fire Squad" and "G.O.M.D." set the Catholic school crowd off while his more mainstream records like "Work Out," "Nobody's Perfect," "Crooked Smile" and the finale "Power Trip" have the arena belting notes on notes. Not too shabby for a second homecoming.

Double tap some moments from the STJ show below.

Cole's home

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the real is back

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WELCOME BACK COLE! #wetdreamz #jcole #sju

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#firesquad #jcole #sju #2014foresthillsdrivetour

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The yung gawd J. Cole at St. John's last night. #ColeWorld

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Rich Fury

‘Jesus Is King’ Is Kanye West’s Attempt To Get Right With God

Less than two hours have passed since I received confirmation that I somehow scored tickets to Kanye West’s Jesus Is King NYC listening session. You know, the album that was supposed to drop last Friday? It’s now Sunday, and this session seems to be the only guaranteed way to hear the album.

I scroll through Twitter to see if copping the free tickets was just that easy. I’m especially curious, given the vocal pushback against Kanye over the past year and a half, by a slew of his now-former fans who took issue with his seemingly newfound, conservative opinions.

But I see a frenzy on my timeline, courtesy of the unofficial Ye documentarians behind @KanyePodcast, of other people still clamoring to get tickets. Many of the passes were snapped up by scalpers, who were selling them for as much as $150 each, if not more.

It’s a shame, but it’s the name of the game. Especially for any event involving Kanye West.

After throwing on the nearest clean outfit, I hop on the train to head to the venue, United Palace, in Washington Heights; it doesn’t take long to find other people who are, too. They’re wearing Yeezys. And they can’t stop chattering.

As the stops come, one after another, more Yeezys board the subway car. Most of them are pristine, but some—the cream white and butter 350s, in particular—are just impossible to keep clean. In a lot of ways, they reflect their creator: they’re ostentatious, but in the simplest way. And, try as you might, you can’t get them back to the way they used to be once the façade has been stained. You just have to accept their current state, and press on.

An hour-plus journey later, I get off the train and follow the sea of Yeezys for the three-minute walk to the venue. Once inside the theater—30 minutes after doors open, and an hour and a half after standing in line—my phone is placed inside a locked bag and given back to me. Thankfully, I have two McDonald’s napkins and a pen in my purse to take notes.

I rush through the ornate and stately United Palace, which doubles as a non-profit cultural/performing arts center and church, and pass by merch stands. I only have time to briefly examine the set-up, but my eyes bug out of my head when I get a glimpse of what Ye is selling: Jesus Is King hoodies for $140. You read that right. One hundred and forty buckaroos.

Several failed attempts to grab a seat later, I finally find one near the back of the space, on the lower floor. No more than a minute later, the crowd collectively jumps to its feet and begins chanting “Yeezy! Yeezy!”

“All rise,” I think to myself, “for the Honorable Kanye West.”

I take a look around to get a better idea about who still counts themselves among Kanye’s diehard fans. Social media would indicate that his recent events cater mostly to white audiences. “Kanye gentrified his own fan base,” Bronx comedian Desus Nice tweeted Saturday. But here, it’s a completely mixed experience. To my immediate left is an Asian couple; to my right, two white men (who don’t clap for anything, all night). Behind me is a Hispanic couple, and in front of me are two young black women, wearing matching black-on-black Jesus Is King sweatshirts.

The event begins with a brief hello from the 42-year-old Chicago rapper, but I can’t see him because so many people are standing on their seats, trying to get a better look at the man who provided them with a soundtrack to their lives. It’s equally treacly and touching.

After greeting us, Kanye introduces two films: the first is about five minutes long, about the making of Jesus Is King. When the clip rolls, tiny silhouettes grace the wings of the dark stage. Even from the back of the venue, I can make out Saint and North West, dancing and clapping along with their father’s take on worship music. As the night progresses, North edges closer and closer to center stage, wanting to be applauded and seen just as much as Ye.

In both the short film and in an approximately 15-minute preview of the Jesus Is King IMAX documentary, Kanye places an immense focus on his choir. In a stirring moment, the singers flip his moody 808s & Heartbreak cut, “Say You Will,” into one of their signature Christ-focused covers: “Savor His Grace; it’s in His will.”

There are powerful moments aplenty, including close-ups on beautiful black women shedding tears while praising God; women who remind me of my own sister, who sings in a choir back home in Texas. But the energy in this room is conflicting. People who likely have never set foot in a black church are leaping up and “testifying” in a way that looks hauntingly familiar, but contrived. Studied. It looks like a lot of pretending.

Thankfully, I don’t have to wallow for long in my shadiness. Kanye takes his position in front of the stage, MPC at the ready, and begins the show we’ve all been waiting for.

The first track he plays, “Up From the Ashes,” bounces like a track Chance would have put on Coloring Book. “I come to You empty, free of my pride,” Ye vocalizes over gentle, minimal production. Everyone stays tame and in their seats, enjoying the moment but waiting for the next song.

The second Kanye presses play on the next track, “Follow God,” a few stans pop out of their seats, almost like synchronized jack-in-the-boxes. At this moment, Kanye tells us he needs us all to stand up. Of course, most of the audience thought that meant to storm the aisles, climb over seats, and hop onstage with Ye. I can honestly 1000% understand why this was the song that moved him to move us: driven by a soul sample, which I can’t yet put my finger on, it brings to mind Kanye’s 2011 collaboration with Jay-Z, “Otis.”

Three tracks into the album (“On God”), two things become abundantly clear: 1) Kanye did not have permission to tell his fans to break venue protocol and rush to the stage; and 2) Jesus Is King has a peculiar pattern—there’s no distinct sound that travels from one song to the next.

After security does its best to restabilize United Palace, Kanye continues to play “On God.” A vast change from the tracks before it, “On God” veers more toward electronic than gospel or hip-hop.

“Sunday,” on the other hand, is guitar-driven and brooding. On top of that, it has a witty hook: “Closed on Sunday, you like Chick-fil-A… Follow Jesus, listen now—obey.” Ye is feeling this one so he runs it back again, so his fans can get the “Chick-fil-A” line down. And they do.

A more experimental track follows “Sunday”: “Water.” It immediately reminds me of both Frank Ocean and Imogen Heap; it’s evocative, warbling, and tender, and there are countless moving parts. All I can think is: I would much rather hear this, than hear Ye rap about bleached assholes.

You might recall this tainted subject from Ye’s opening bars on “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1” off of 2016’s The Life of Pablo. It was particularly jarring to hear after “Ultralight Beam” at the start of the project, which Kanye explained would be “a gospel album with a whole lot of cursing on it.”

It’s almost like Kanye is now bending over backwards to make up for his TLOP gospel album pump fake. On “Selah,” track six, the song is overpowered by organs and what sounds like irreverent yelling, but is likely just Ye’s way of worshipping. He doubles down IRL at the end, with what can only be described as a series of Howard Dean screams.

“New Body,” the only song that’s been heard by the public (via leaks), sounds downright terrible in this venue. The speakers at the front of the space and the soundstage in back, near me, just aren’t aligning. (The drums, my God, the drums.) I wait patiently for the next song, which I think Ye calls “Ugliest Nightmare”; that title is not on the latest version of the tracklist posted by Kim Kardashian West, but it seems to match up with “LA Monster”: “Everyone is saying they woke, but they sleep,” Ye raps. “Walking dead, eyes closed.”

Kanye plays one of the most moving tracks on Jesus Is King penultimately: “Hands On,” featuring revered gospel musician Fred Hammond. “Tell the devil that I’m going on strike,” Ye announces. “I been working for him my whole life.” He gets even more honest later in the song: “‘What are you hearing from the Christians?’ They’ll be the first ones to judge me. Make me feel like nobody love me.” This made it very clear, to me, that Kanye is aware of the conversations happening around him, whether he chooses to engage or not.

The final track of the night is “Use This Gospel,” featuring No Malice, Pusha-T, and Kenny G. Before Ye can play the track in full, the NYPD enters and shines its light of authority down the aisles, announcing the concert is over. We’re effectively being shut down, but Kanye pushes through and has the crowd sing and hum with him until the end. “Use this gospel for protection,” Ye advises in song. “It’s a hard road to heaven.”

To be frank, Jesus Is King doesn’t compare to hardly any of Kanye’s previous works. The one thing it does have in common, with The Life of Pablo and ye, is that Kanye is reportedly still making adjustments to the project, beyond the final countdown. The production itself could hypothetically be tinkered with endlessly, and a reported Nicki Minaj verse could pop up. But Ye’s bars feel locked into place: simple, unpretentious worship. It sounds like he’s learning how to rap all over again, complete with figurative training wheels. You know how on Showtime at the Apollo, if a kid sings “His Eye Is on the Sparrow” badly, the audience still can’t boo them because it’s a song about God? Same thing.

But, Kanye has retained a lot of the elements that we know and love/d him for: the explorative production, the augmented, autotuned vocals, and perhaps most of all, his enthusiasm. A lot of the things that we love about Kanye are still there. It just so happens that this time, he’s backed by a choir, singing straight to Jesus.

Kanye is trying to do something revolutionary—he’s pivoting in real time from a flippant, sex-obsessed rapper, to a focused man of God, both in purpose and on wax. This has happened before: the late Bushwick Bill, DMX, and the aforementioned No Malice are just a few MCs who turned their lives over to Christ and dedicated their careers to praising Him. But none of them have the platform, or staying power, that Kanye holds.

On the ride home after the listening session, the subway cars fill with Yeezys, yet again. About halfway to Brooklyn, a young white man startlingly yells out, “Hey! Somebody AirDrop that Kanye!” A few folks laugh, but the force field of Ye’s energy has waned by this point. The event lasted an exact hour, leading me to speculate that people were left wanting more; especially fans who are used to his bombastic, elaborate performances.

Still, Kanye’s fans on the subway genuinely describe the event as “fire” and “crazy.” At this level of fandom, they probably don’t care what the album is even about: they’re just buying into the brand of Kanye West. His stans are always going to show up. They will always buy his merch, by the bag—even if it’s connected to a religion they don’t believe in, yet.

In all fairness, Kanye is a legend. Despite his polarizing comments over the past year and a half, he has accomplished things in his roughly two-decade-long career that many would take several lifetimes to complete. He will likely never be “canceled.” His works are woven too tightly into the stitching of our musical tastes and more importantly, our memories.

I get off at my stop, happy to finally be free to think to myself about what exactly just happened, and what this might mean for Ye’s future success. As I walk out of the subway station, a lasting moment is imprinted in my brain: before sharing the album, Kanye asked the audience to praise Jesus with him. His request was met with a smattering of half-hearted applause.

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Andy Kropa

Ta-Nehisi Coates Adds New Voice To Slavery With Debut Novel 'The Water Dancer’

Writer Ta-Nehisi Coates has been hailed by Maya Angelou as the writer who has filled the void left open by the late James Baldwin, providing a critical, piercing, and brilliantly logical voice that analyzes a crooked American system.

Whether Coates intended to or not, the award-winning writer has met the calling as one of this generation’s intellectual leaders. His first three works – The Beautiful Struggle, a memoir detailing Coates love for hip-hop, and navigating his awkward teenage years of masculinity; Between the World and Me, a Baldwin-inspired letter to his son, which won a National Book Award; and We Were Eight Years in Power, a collection of essays in which Coates analyzes race and argues that Donald Trump’s election was an attempt to erase the traces of a Black president– along with his columns at The Atlantic--were nothing short of trailblazing.

Considering his success as an author and former journalist, one would think that Coates writes without the burden of insecurities. But that’s not the case. During the ten years of writing his debut novel, The Water Dancer, a story about a slave named Hiram Walker who has a photographic memory, Coates had reservations about releasing the book after fellow award-winning author Colson Whitehead won a Pulitzer Prize for fiction and a National Book Award for The Underground Railroad.

“I expressed my concerns to my editor, but he told me that I was in good hands,” Coates explained to Oprah Winfrey last night (Sept. 23) during an interview at Harlem's Apollo Theatre. “There’s room for other voices about slavery,” Coates said to Winfrey.

While The Water Dancer is about Walker’s experience navigating the Underground Railroad network of routes and safe houses for runaway slaves, Whitehead's work is about an actual railroad that is underground.

The Water Dancer takes place on a tobacco plantation in Virginia. Coates explained to Winfrey that he visited Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello Plantation as well as plantations in Georgia and other parts of the Deep South to help him better understand the daily life of a slave.

Coates writes The Water Dancer as if he’s an actual plantation tourist guide. Walker’s journey through wooded areas is filled with anxiety. He's actually captured a few times throughout the book. In Coates’ other works, his writing is layered like a verse by Jay-Z, who Coates often references in We Were Eight Years in Power. Here, Coates is more straightforward, which surprisingly doesn’t take away from his creativity. The candidness and cleverness that packs The Water Dancer is reminiscent of Coates comic book writing.

Walker, who is the narrator of The Water Dancer, is born into slavery, and lost his mother after she was sold at a slave auction. In Coates’ essay A Case for Reparations, he writes, "blacks were herded into the sights of unscrupulous lenders who took them for money and sport.” Here, Walker's photographic memory is used to amuse the guests of his slave master, who Walker discovers is his father.

The novel’s protagonist, as Coates intended to do, is a special black man. Walker knew of his special powers early in life. “By the time I was five I could, having only heard it once, holler out a work song, its calls and responses, and to that add my own improvisations, all to the wide-eyed delight of my elders.”

He continues: “I was a strange child. I talked before I walked, through I never talked much, because more than anything, I watched and remembered.”

Coates also plays with fun historical references. When Walker finally experiences freedom as a black man in Philadelphia, he enjoys eating gingerbread. This is a direct reference to Booker T. Washington’s autobiography Up From Slavery, where Washington writes how he wished to eat ginger-cakes as a free man.

While Coates may have had reservations about penning a book about slavery after the publication of Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, The Water Dancer stands alone in the fact that this book doesn’t dwell on the brutalities of slavery. Instead, Coates uses his voice to focus on the magical, mental powers of a black man--sort of like he does when writing his Black Panther comic strips. While The Water Dancer is candid, Coates does add an unexamined layer of mental acuity to the story of slavery.

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J Balvin performs at Baja Beach Festival 2019 in Mexico's Rosarito Beach.
Baja Beach Fest/Jose Prado

Review: Baja Beach Festival Brings Reggaeton And Latin Trap Oasis To Rosarito

One of Mexico’s Hollywood-friendly beach towns got some action this weekend with the third annual Baja Beach Festival. From Friday, Aug. 16 to Saturday, Aug. 17, the serene beach just under an hour from San Diego transformed into a paradise for urbano music stans. With the weather clocking in at mid-60 to mid-70 degrees, the end of summer breeze blew just hard enough for attendees to throw their inhibitions to the wind. An idyll of booty cheeks, bikinis, and Tecate beer guzzlers, the outdoor venue that boasted one main stage was not only ideal for those who wanted to take a dip in the ocean then plop on the sand to indulge in live entertainment but also for those who caught the performances from the balconies of the adjacent hotels.

The line-up mirrored a well-curated playlist of today’s popular Latin trap and reggaeton acts. Singer Cazzu brought her Club Emo Tour to Mexico, evoking bad girl vibes. She could slow down the tempo for a sensual love note à la “Toda” -- she appeared on the remix for the song from fellow Baja Beach performer Alex Rose -- or body roll to a sexy number like “Puedo Ser.” R&B-leaning artists like the Brytiago (Night 1) and aforementioned Rose (Night 2) present as rappers on-stage with fitted hats and tees, designer gear and iced out jewelry but croon for a woman’s adoration. Ear-pleasing entries like Brytiago’s “Bipolar” and “La Mentira” as well as Rose’s “Darte” (which borrows the melody from Akon’s explicit “I Wanna Love You”) and contribution to Lunay and Baja Beach Fest act Lyanno’s “A Solas.” Reggaeton duo Jowell y Randy brought classic reggaeton feels with “Un Poco Loca,” which samples Chaka Demus & Pliers's "Murder She Wrote” while also reviving eternal party-starters like Casa De Leones’ 2007 debut single “No Te Veo.”

Despite missing Cardi B -- who canceled a string of shows recently -- the star power for both nights was not dimmed. J Balvin performed an hour’s worth of material that anyone who owns a streaming service account would know. The Balvin fiesta came with dancing figures like life-sized clouds, mushrooms, and colorful creatures including a Cookie Monster-esque octopus. There was no territory he didn’t cover on the music front either. He sprinkled in gems from the Bad Bunny joint project Oasis and collaborative tracks like “Con Altura” (which features Anita) and “Loco Contigo” (which includes DJ Snake and Tyga). After their earlier set, Jowell y Randy appeared for “Bonita” during J Balvin’s set. He then hyped up the late-night crowd with infectious mainstream hits like “Machika,” a Cardi B-less “I Like It” fused with Pete Rodriguez’s original “I Like It Like That” and the explosive finale “Mi Gente.”

The main event came with Ozuna. The 30,000 in attendance clung to every canción, from “Vaina Loca” to the Romeo Santos-assisted songs “Ibiza” and “El Farsante.” His solo rendition of “La Modelo” and the megahit “Dile Que Tu Me Quieres” had the hot girls -- and boys -- singing every word. “Baila Baila Baila” was an immediate call-to-action for twerking on the beach while the closing number “Taki Taki” preceded a nearly three-minute fireworks show, a fitting nod to Friday’s explosive performances.

Following a night of afterparties that rang off in las calles till 4 a.m., Saturday was still loaded with vibras. To set Day 2 off, daytime acts like Amenazzy and Lyanno provided a melodic yet nostalgic buffet of their catalog’s finest. Amenazzy performed a track that borrowed the beat to Rich Gang, Young Thug and Rich Homie Quan’s “Lifestyle” while Puerto Rico’s own Lyanno brought “Se Cansó,” the Urba y Roma and Zion y Lennox-assisted “Te Veo” and “Dejarte Llevar,” which samples Mario’s “Let Me Love You.”

After an intermission of line dancing to Caballe Dorado’s “No Rompas Más (Mi Pobre Corazón)” (Billy Ray Cyrus’ “Achy Breaky Heart” morphed into a Spanish language hit), De La Ghetto stormed the stage with his latest release “Selfie,” the Nicky Jam collabo “Si Tú No Estás” and his verse on the “Escápate Conmigo” remix, an ideal soundtrack for lovers and lovers-for-the-night alike. He transitioned into a semi-bar fest by performing his solo take on Drake’s “Started From The Bottom” with “Estamos Aqui,” a track with Arcangel (the reggaeton artist De La Ghetto formed a duo with in the early aughts) and in a sense, an appropriate slogan for the sold-out crowd in attendance.

Now, full stop for Becky G. The fiery Chicana who hails from both Mexico and Inglewood, Calif. represented her two cultures with pride, telling the crowd in Spanglish, “I lived my life in between two worlds, representing two flags, y siempre me dijeron, ‘You’re either too Mexican for the Americans or too American for the Mexicans. You can’t be in the middle.’” But Becky G showed and proved she can keep the same energy for her peoples, bringing some hip-hop flavor to her crossover joints like “Mad Love” (which features David Guetta and Sean Paul) and the playful Anitta collabo “Banana” while dishing out Spanish-language songs like “Mala Mía” (Maluma and Anitta are on the original), “Que Me Baile,” the Myke Towers duet “Dollar” and the celestial love note “Cuando Te Besé.” Based on the hometown love she received from an audience that included her parents and siblings, claro que si, Becky G nailed it.

The roar of the crowd reached a fever pitch when one of the seasoned reggaetoneros, Nicky Jam, arrived. With the breadth of his catalog packed with, you guessed it, jams, the puertoriqueno effortlessly segued from his recent offerings (“El Amante,” “Si Tú La Ves” and the Silvestre Dangond’s wedding day-ready “Cásate Conmigo”) to the hits that cemented his reggaeton reign (2003’s “Me Voy Pal Party” and 2005’s “La Gata” which follows the same cadence as P!nk’s 2000 debut single “There You Go”). Nicky Jam then unleashed “X,” a continuation of J Balvin’s Night 1 performance of the Will Smith-co-signed single.

To note, it wasn’t uncommon to hear the same song performed by multiple acts. Rosarito was treated to three different verses of Nio García, Darrell and Casper Mágico’s 2017 smash “Te Boté” from Ozuna, Nicky Jam and Bad Bunny, who each appeared on the remix released in 2018. Same happened for J Balvin, who performed his parts in “La Canción” and “I Like It” on Night 1, followed by Bad Bunny, who delivered his share of the same tracks on the consecutive night.

To set the mood for Bad Bunny, Mexico’s own DJ Fredy Fresco dabbled in some hip-hop by spinning City Girls “Act Up” and a festival favorite, YG’s “Go Loko.” For context, the warm-up felt intentional as Bad Bunny’s melodic swagger and rap sensibilities have boosted his crossover appeal. Cue the summer smash “Mía," which features a Spanish-speaking Drake (Sadly, the 6 God was M.I.A. for the live rendition in Baja California), and definite crowd-pleaser. Still, the eccentric 25-year-old -- laced in a red tracksuit and his signature shades -- delivered other cuts across the spectrum from the high-octane banger “200 MPH” to the subdued “Solamente Soy Feliz." The YouTube phenom’s reach was palpable: for every track he performed, it sounded like his fans printed out the lyrics for a sing-along. He then brought el fuego (literally firing up the flame machines) for “La Romana” before bowing out with “Callaita,” a perfect send-off for Baja Beach Fest with this lyric alone: Si hay sol, hay playa.

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