It began with a melancholy electric piano line, a blanket of turntabled beats and a haze of marijuana smoke drifting against a backdrop of blue light. Practically in unison, an army of camera phones pointed their tiny 4-megapixel lenses to the Goldstein Auditorium stage as rapper J. Cole took the stage with a grin, saluted the crowd and launched into “Welcome” from his 2009 mixtape The Warm Up.
Cole opened for fellow rapper Wiz Khalifa as part of the third annual Hope Benefit Concert, thrown by Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity at Syracuse University. The concert’s $12-tickets went on sale Nov. 9 and sold out in less than three hours. Organized to raise money for the nonprofit activist organization Home HeadQuarters, the concert was less of a benefit and more of a three-hour commentary on sex, illegal drug use and hip-hop banality run rampant.
Three songs in to his set, Cole asked the crowd if it had heard his last two mixtapes. “I can work with that,” he said when the crowd cheered. He then launched into “Dollar and a Dream II,” his fourth song of the night largely composed about himself (after “Grown Simba” and “Last Call”).
“Everything ain’t what it seems,” he rapped slowly and triumphantly in the final verse to “Dollar and a Dream II,” to wide applause and open-palmed encouragement from the crowd. Cole, a younger, up-and-coming rapper with raspy delivery took Goldstein by storm, engaging his audience by thanking them incessantly as well as performing songs that most of them knew and sang along with.
In “Before I’m Gone,” he rapped, “I’ll be next to my brother in the cell no bail for me / Man let me out send me back to bitches that smell Purdy.” However, where Cole’s lyrical priorities coincided with both having a good time and identifying social issues like African American incarceration, Khalifa’s did not.
Khalifa lifted up three fingers and ranked his priorities toward the end of his set: (1) smoking marijuana “every day,” (2) the opinions of his true fans and (3) that everyone arrive home safely after his set despite the substance abuse (and lack of visible policing from security on site). The vast majority of his songs — to the point of overbearing repetition — reference smoking marijuana.
But that isn’t surprising. Khalifa talks candidly about his recreational drug use and makes several notes of it in his lyrics. His most recent tour, the Wake & Bake Tour, ended in Allentown, Pa., on Nov. 16, but not before a minor detour in court. During the tour Khalifa was arrested on drug charges. On Nov. 8, after a performance at East Carolina University, authorities searched his tour bus. He posted $300,000 bail and was released the same morning the tickets sold out at SU.
There’s a good amount of comedy in the fact that he still raps almost exclusively about getting high. Between his puerile recurring lines, mumbled flow and penchant for gimmicks (tattooed shirtlessness, a stage populated by bumbling sidekicks and constant jokes about marijuana), his opener ended the night the better emcee.
Upon leaving the stage, Khalifa’s crowd begged and cheered for the expected encore. Rather than a full song, he and his posse only performed about 30 seconds of the line “Get your muthafuckin’ hands up” over a crunching, tumultuous beat as the encore — a lackluster encore to a lackluster set.
After Cole performed his last song, he stepped down from the stage on the edges of the barrier separating the crowd from him and spent two minutes giving high fives and shaking hands. Cole repeated throughout the set “I appreciate y’all.”
In light of the Wiz's lack of sober inspiration and J.’s nice-guy appeal, though, it’s hard to imagine even arriving at the concert proper, given the deejaying prior. DJ Supa Dupa, who reminded the crowd on multiple occasions that he deserved a Grammy and also happened to hail from Brooklyn, felt the need to mix the most obvious tunes by mainstream blow-up artists Ke$ha, Owl City, Train, Lady Gaga and The Black Eyed Peas.
“This guy deserves a Grammy!” I don’t think any of the artists that performed did.
(Photo: Alyssa Greenberg)