J. Cole schools mumble rappers and trap stars alike at Jmblya

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.

J. Cole performs Saturday, May 5, at Jmblya at Circuit of the Americas. Robert Hein/For American-Statesman

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.

RELATED: Scoremore’s Jmblya taps into youth movement 

Migos perform Saturday, May 5, at Jmblya at Circuit of the Americas. Robert Hein/For American-Statesman

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.

FASHION FESTIES: See what people wore to Jmblya 2018

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.

J. Cole performs Saturday, May 5, at Jmblya at Circuit of the Americas. Robert Hein/For American-Statesman

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.

Joey Purp paints portrait of an artist as a young man

Rapper Joey Purp from Chicago,Ill., performs on the Tito’s Handmade Vodka Stage on the second day of weekend two of the 2016 Austin City Limits Festival at Zilker Park Oct. 8, 2016.  Erika Rich for American-Statesman
Rapper Joey Purp performs Saturday during Weekend Two of the 2016 Austin City Limits Music Festival. Erika Rich for American-Statesman

By Steve Scheibal, special to the American-Statesman

It’s Purp, “like the color purple, like the word ‘purpose,'” Joey Purp explained as he neared the end of his remarkable ACL Fest showcase.

When the Chicago rapper took the stage early Saturday, it had all the trappings of a dance party. His DJ fired up the crowd with extended cuts from Kanye West and Chance the Rapper, and then Purp bounded out to beats that were fine-tuned to make people bounce.

So it was jarring when he broke into the first track from his mixtape “iiiDrops,” rapping about witnessing a murder, seeing what it meant to both the victim and the killer, and living under the cloud of untimely and violent death.

Purp’s arresting flow and clear voice sucked the crowd into the story, so much so that the dance party had pretty well ground to a halt when the song wrapped up.

“You still with us, Austin, Texas?” he asked.

“There’s a lot going on in Chicago right now,” he said. “It’s up to us to have a critical discourse about it.”

To some degree, Purp’s set was dedicated to that conversation. He was the only one with the microphone, but he welcomed his audience into his songs and stories, gave them chants to repeat and made it as easy as possible to dance.

If the party occasionally got a little serious, Purp’s bright presence, big smile and sharp raps kept it from dragging. For a lamentably short 45 minutes, he propelled the audience with the exuberance of an artist who has a story to tell and knows how to tell  it — and who’s risen to the point that he can at least see the brass ring.

As he closed, he had someone take a picture with the audience. “Put your twos up for Tupac Shakur,” he said, and the crowd gleefully threw peace signs in the air.

Everyone, from Joey Purp on back, felt lucky to be in the shot.


Nothing But Thieves blends influences behind a powerful voice

Conor Mason of Nothing But Thieves plays the Honda stage at ACL Fest weekend on Saturday October 1, 2016. Dave Creaney/AMERICAN-STATESMAN
Conor Mason of Nothing But Thieves during Weekend One of ACL Fest. Dave Creaney/AMERICAN-STATESMAN

By Steve Scheibal, special to the American-Statesman

Nothing But Thieves took ACL Fest’s big Honda Stage early Saturday afternoon sounding like a band that would’ve been quite happy blaring out of a ’90s alternative rock station. But right around the time that the uninitiated were steeling themselves for Stone Temple Something-or-Other, Conor Mason started singing.

Mason sings with sweeping range and spot-on pitch without ever sounding technical. He packs fury into the band’s rockers and heart into its ballads, and his falsetto rovings are impressive without ever seeming contrived. Comparisons to Jeff Buckley are apt, though Mason sings with more fire.

That kind of voice is a handy thing to have around, and the English band takes full advantage of it. Rather than reheated grunge, Saturday’s set blended those punk and metal elements with full-throated Brit Rock. It created a fierce, full sound infused with clever hooks, propelled by sharp musicianship and an especially tight rhythm section.

Certainly, there were influences to pick out — a bit of Soundgarden here, some Blur there. But Mason’s voice makes it something else. It’s not necessarily different, but it still sounds new.