J. Cole sat at the pinnacle of a stage platform designed to resemble his childhood home, surveying 16,500 fans who'd been rapping along to every word of his life story.
"When we're young, and even when we're old, the world is constantly pumping us full of images about what your life is supposed to be," Cole said.
Few could have pictured this coming for Jermaine Cole. But there he was on Sunday, dropping life lessons all over Tampa's MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre, and asserting his place near the top of the world of hip hop.
Eight months after dropping his acclaimed new album 2014 Forest Hills Drive – named for the address of his childhood home in Fayetteville, N.C. – it's clear the top is where the 30-year-old MC belongs.
The autobiographical LP was a starmaking turn by a rapper many already considered a star, but who now must be mentioned alongside his contemporaries Drake, Kendrick Lamar and A$AP Rocky as one of hip hop's most bankable young minds.
Cole is performing the album nearly in its entirety on this fittingly named Forest Hills Drive Tour, and because the LP is famously feature-free – a major rarity in rap – he's doing so almost entirely solo. While he did have a live band and DJ on Sunday, they stayed mostly out of sight all night, leaving Cole as the only focal point on the stage, spitting truths in his raspy singsong style.
As a result, the concert had much the feel of a one-man show, with Cole up and down all night, delivering rhymes and even acting out lyrics when appropriate. Between songs, he spun long yarns about motivation, success fantasies and women, and acted those out, too. While he talked about hating the "weird, phony, shady" world of Hollywood ("F--- TMZ," he said at one point), dude probably has a second career ahead of him as an actor.
Like any good album, Forest Hills Drive ebbs and flows, and so it was with Sunday's concert. Brash, defiant tracks A Tale of 2 Citiez and Fire Squad were absolute beasts, prompting delirious fans to explode in unison. Wet Dreamz and Crooked Smile were pure sing-along fun. And opener Intro and later numbers Apparently and Love Yourz were dreamier, more soulful, with Cole rapping and singing his own hooks.
He stepped away from Forest Hills Drive at a couple of points to drop into his catalog for a few tunes, including the thunderous Nobody's Perfect and Can't Get Enough; and stanky slow jam Planes, for which he brought out America's sex crooner of the moment, Jeremih.
Millennial sex jams aside, there's a classicist streak to Cole's music and style that positions him for a long, long tail of a career, even if it means missing out on the occasional dollar bill. That's the moral of 2014 Forest Hills Drive, and the message he fed fans all night.
Offering a glimpse of what J. Cole might look like with a little more commercial ambition was his tourmate Big Sean. The Detroit native lit up the crowd with hit after hit after hit, delivered largely from a thin sliver of stage in front of his own 3D backdrop – a liquor store and a church.
The imagery made some sense – Sean's more propulsive numbers (Paradise, I Don't Like, Mercy) thundered with clublike bass and kept the crowd pumping their arms all the way back to the lawn. Meanwhile, he preached the gospel of positivity on the just-shy-of-trite affirmation One Man Can Change The World.
"Do you what you love to do," he told the crowd before Blessings. "Follow your heart, man."
Before Big Sean, Jeremih brought a cadre of dancers for a set thick with bottle-service jams like Somebody, Don't Tell 'Em and Birthday Sex. And before him was YG, whose rougher, straight-outta-Compton edge didn't totally land until he dropped the Dre-like funk of Twist My Fingaz and his big bangers My N---- and Who Do You Love.
It was a well-rounded lineup, one that ably filled out some of J. Cole's perceived shortcomings: Pop accessibility (Big Sean), sex appeal (Jeremih) and edge (YG). But Cole probably wouldn't covet their skill sets anyway.
"No such thing as a life that's better than yours," he sings on Love Yourz.
That seems to be the case for J. Cole at the moment, as he surveys the rap world from above.
-- Jay Cridlin