Check out photos from the show in our gallery here.
At around 9:30 p.m., it all came full circle, according to J. Cole. The rapper had a sentimental look in his eyes as he bound onto the Carrier Dome stage and after a moment, emitted electricity into the waiting crowd with fierce lyrics and a strong beat. Syracuse University’s own Schine Underground was his first professional show years ago and his larger than life rendition of “Land of Snakes” was clearly his way of saying “I’m home.”
The homecoming was courtesy of the Phi Beta Sigma fraternity’s Friday Night Lights 100 Years of Service Culture for Service Benefit Concert, featuring J. Cole, rapper Bas and R&B singer Elle Varner. The March 21 event had raised over $70,000 for Syracuse charities and brought out both loyal and fair weather fans who pack three levels of the Carrier Dome. I, an admitted member of the latter, had a spot right next to the speakers that lined the stage, about three feet from stardom. Unfortunately, my press pass and stadium security only allowed me mere glimpses of the show. For some reason, security chose to limit all press to 3 songs per set, forcing me to spend much of the concert watching yellow jacketed guards in a backstage holding room. But perhaps my controlled viewing of the show and anticipation as I was finally unleashed before each set revealed the true essence of each performance.
At 7:48, I took my place stage side to see the opening act. The performer seemed to read my and the nearly unmoving crowd’s minds after he emerged and said, “A lot of y’all are probably asking ‘Who the fuck is this?’” It was Bas, the rapper from Jamaica, Queens who then gave us a proper introduction with the use of a slow but powerful beat, and smooth and funky guitar riffs with his song “Love Souvenir.” The entire room erupted in an infectious head bob. He followed with a few tracks from his latest mixtape Quarter Water Mixtape Vol. II, and then I was unfortunately beckoned to the backstage holding area again.
After fraternizing with the other banished journalists for what seemed like an eternity, I practically ran back to the stage at 8:30 to see Elle Varner. I waited patiently for the soul singer until the lights finally dimmed and a voice whispered “Syracuse?” over the loud speakers; I got chills and the crowd let out screams. Varner appeared moments later and commanded the stage. As she went into renditions of her new songs “Cold Case” and “Rover,” every lyric sank deeper and grew fierier than the last. Then, she gave us an upbeat performance of her hit “I Only Wanna Give it to You” in which she flawlessly rapped J. Cole’s featured verse; the crowd was utterly uncontained. Of course, this was the perfect time for security to usher me backstage again. This was actually the most painful exit of them all. As I walked away, Varner sat down and picked up her guitar; I knew the audience was in for a treat. From backstage, I could faintly hear her acoustic medley of Beyoncé’s “Drunk in Love,” Varner’s own hit “Refill,” and J. Cole and Miguel’s “Power Trip;” I died a little inside.
The funny thing is, I never fancied myself a Bas, Elle or J. Cole fan, per se. I had always enjoyed the few songs that I knew, but I didn’t fully appreciate each performer’s power until I found myself running back to the stage, determined not to miss any more of the show than I had to. It came full circle for me at 9:30 as well, when I finally evaded security and joined the audience. J Cole’s truest fans sang “Lights Please,” “In the Morning” and “Can’t Get Enough” verbatim and we all belted out “Crooked Smile” in unison. It was one hell of a show.
Photo by Adam Gendler