This weekend marks the sixth year of Jmblya, the hip-hop festival launched by local promoter Scoremore that visits Dallas, Austin and Houston over three days. Last year, the festival graduated from the Statesman’s parking lot to the Circuit of the Americas parking lot, expanding to two stages and welcoming top-dollar headliners like Chance the Rapper, Migos and Gucci Mane. This year’s outing corrected some of last year’s growing pains, such as a perilous lack of water, but it still had its hiccups.
Young Thug was a last-minute sub for a pregnant Cardi B, which stings a little extra because her fall itinerary opening for Bruno Mars doesn’t include Austin. (Mars will perform alongside Britney Spears at Formula 1 weekend in October.) But Thugger proved a worthy alternative, whipping the crowd into a fine frenzy despite his nearly inaudible microphone and a disconcerting craaaaack that emanated from the stage’s speakers during every bass drop. The crowd erupted nonetheless, hurling food and drinks into the air and literally blotting out the stage with smoke from various apparatuses.
Thug also proved a much better fit than Jmblya’s other last-minute replacement: T.I., who took Kevin Gates’ late afternoon slot with a day’s notice. (Gates’ name still appeared on the lineup cards handed out to attendees.) To his credit, the 37-year-old trap progenitor barreled through his slew of hits, including “Bring Em Out” and “Whatever You Like,” with verve and precision. Still, there was no ignoring the fact that he hasn’t had a proper hit in almost a decade (or since half the audience was in elementary school), and attendees seemed to be saving their energy for the new-school trap kings, Migos.
Lucky for fans, the superstar Atlanta trio delivered big-time during their second consecutive Jmblya visit. Quavo, Offset and Takeoff seemed to barely break a sweat as they sauntered across a stage adorned with strobe lights and bursts of fog, unloading the staggering treasure trove of hits they’ve amassed in just a few years. “Hannah Montana” and “Fight Night” gave way to “T-Shirt” and the chart-topping “Bad and Boujee,” mapping the group’s ascension from internet sensations to rap elites and reinforcing their steadfast refusal to tweak their sound in the slightest. Their iconic triplet flow showed signs of strain on their eighth-best single, “MotorSport,” which exists solely to showcase Nicki Minaj and Cardi B and becomes literally pointless in their absence. Thankfully the group ended their hit-filled set just as they risked outwearing their welcome, proving their mettle as bonafide headliners.
After the mass exodus that followed Migos’ set (the only biblical thing about the day’s proceedings), one could have reasonably suspected the crowd to look considerably thinner during J. Cole’s headlining performance. But one would have been dead wrong. The impenetrable throng stretched nearly to the food vendors in the back of the parking lot—roughly twice the size of Migos’ crowd—all awaiting what would easily be the best set of the day.
Cole wasted no time warning up, throttling his microphone stand and leaping into the air as he rapped his first song with vicious determination. It only takes a cursory glance at Twitter to see the split opinions on Cole’s music: Fans consider him an intellectual and top-tier MC, while detractors find him lyrically corny and musically boring, the most damning insult of all for a rapper. And while his new album, “KOD,” drags and sputters in places, Cole spat fire and fury throughout his entire hour-plus performance.
The Fayetteville, North Carolina, native’s lyrical dexterity offered a reprieve from the sound issues and marble-mouthed rapping that characterized the rest of the day. He barked the chorus to “Motiv8” and spat the dizzying flows of “ATM” until his voice grew hoarse. A masterful backing band lent an urgency to some of his drearier compositions, and the audience answered Cole’s call-and-response chants with gusto. Couples cozied up to each other during “Kevin’s Heart,” either oblivious or indifferent to the fact that the song is a candid reflection on the consequences of infidelity, inspired by Cole’s friend, Kevin Hart.
Even with five chart-topping albums under his belt, Cole remains an anomaly in the rap game. Sporting baggy t-shirts and shoulder-length dreads, he eschews the flashiness of his peers, and he only makes headlines when he drops new music. The singular success of his last two albums, “2014 Forest Hills Drive” and 2016’s “4 Your Eyez Only,” turned the phrase “platinum with no features” into a proper boast and evergreen meme. Appropriately, Cole dazzled on his own at Jmblya, the most poignant moment of his set coming during “1985 – Intro to ‘The Fall Off’,” which listeners have interpreted as an admonishment of young SoundCloud mumble rappers Smokepurpp and Lil Pump.
“I love these little dudes, I really do,” Cole insisted before spitting the second half of the song a cappella. He resisted the urge to punch downward at rappers barely half his age, instead dropping the knowledge he’s earned from over a decade in the business—while also talking himself up.
“I must say, by your songs I’m unimpressed, hey / But I love to see a Black man get paid / And plus, you havin’ fun and I respect that / But have you ever thought about your impact?” Cole asked a spellbound audience. And then: “I’ll be around forever ‘cause my skills is tip-top.”
In that moment, nobody doubted him for a second.