James Cole took home the win at Hip Hop/R&B Showcase on the very stage he once dreamed of performing on.
Showcase inspired Cole to perform but also solidified his decision to attend Belmont. Making his younger self proud, the senior did the very thing he came here to do — and as of Saturday’s win, he’s on his way to the Best of the Best Showcase in April.
“I’m happy the hard work paid off,” Cole said after the lights died down.
He began his performance kneeling down in the quiet, but cheers cut through the silence with the very first note he sang. Soon dancing across the stage and dressed in yellow, Cole had all eyes and cameras in the Curb Event Center trained on him.
The audience was swaying to the groovy opener, “Love It’,’ featuring Belmont alumna Leah Colon. The pop-R&B artist sang two more original songs: “Come Slide” and “Back to the Bottle.”
Cole invited the audience to join him in his closing song, “Back to the Bottle,” where they eagerly sang its title back to him.
With a stage presence like Cole’s, he can stand alone, but he credits his performance to months of practice, fine-tuning, movement and special effects, he said.
And though it was Cole who ultimately won over the judges, three other artists left with an arena full of new fans.
Charismatic freshman Jake Whipple had the first slot in the lineup, noticeable with his blue velvet suit coat and wide grin.
Multicolor lights set the initial scene for “Work It Out,” his first original song. Much like a younger and blonder Bruno Mars, Whipple’s melodic rap brought a groovy pop sound to the stage.
Whipple had folks in the front rows swooning with his growls, grunts and raspy vocals in “Hold On” and “Running Away.” Though none of Whipple’s tracks have made it to streaming services, they’ll be coming soon.
The second performer of the night, sophomore Sheldon Smith, brought the blues in the best way possible. Taking advantage of an incredible vocal range and insanely intricate runs, Smith’s voice was smooth as honey.
A trio of swaying background singers accompanied Smith with soulful harmonies and gospel-choir rhythms as a sea of phone flashlights lit up the Curb during Smith’s original song “Ride.”
Bringing a romantic sound to the genre in “Sweetest Dream,” Smith charmed the audience with his emotional lyrics and entertained with his stage presence, dancing with the musicians in his band.
The audience echoed Smith’s closer, “My Love,” back to him as made his exit.
The final act of the night was Kendall “KSTOW” Stowers, performing alongside senior Kelly “Kelly2face” Dozier. The duo brought energy and had the Curb jumping to their original crowd-pleaser “Smash.” With its one-word hook, the audience was able to catch on pretty fast.
The rap artists got eye-level with the crowd and the audience matched their energy. KSTOW’s stage mannerisms, vocal expressions and rap style call to mind experimental hip-hop artist and actor Daveed Diggs.
The four artists all brought their own spin to the genre, yet maintained its essence.
CEMB’s Hip Hop/R&B Showcase is the final genre showcase before Cole joins this year’s winners — indie-pop-rocker Bridey Costello, Christian artist Sully Bright and country man Trent Wayne — for Best of the Best.
PHOTO: James Cole at Saturday’s Hip Hop/R&B Showcase in the Curb Event Center. Jaymey Hedberg / Belmont Vision
This article was written by Jaymey Hedberg.