If there was ever any doubt of Houston's hard-earned place in the hip-hop pantheon, let JMBLYA's H-Town conclusion set the record straight. More than 20,000 people descended on Sam Houston Race Park last Sunday for the final day of the traveling hip-hop festival that brought genre heavy-hitters around Texas from May 4–6. All told, the three-day event saw more than 80,000 attendees combined.
Sunday in Houston was hot—around 90 degrees, as a sweat-drenched Young Thug announced during his evening set. He was a stand-in for Cardi B, who pulled out of the lineup (and all her subsequent summer shows) last month after announcing she was too pregnant to perform. The night before JMBLYA kicked off in Dallas, fellow headliner Kevin Gates dropped out, too, citing legal circumstances. Grammy nominee T.I. filled the last-minute opening, and while guests missed the chance to witness Cardi's beloved Bronx braggadocio live and scream along to Gates's "Two Phones," no one was the worse for wear–thousands of fans swarmed around the stage for both replacement sets.
The sun set over Sam Houston Race Park as Migos took the stage in all their diamond encrusted, swaggalicious glory, outfitted with fresh ice (and grillz) from Houston jeweler Johnny Dang. A discerning eye could find Dang on stage for the trap trio's set, bopping along to crowd-pleasers "Bad and Boujee" and "MotorSport." Fittingly, the chart-topping rap group was brilliantly parodied on SNL just the night before.
As one would hope, Bun B and Trae the Truth were on-deck to rep Houston, as were other local artists like Maxo Kream, DJ Mr. Rogers, and DJ Mz Rico. Fabolous unexpectedly joined the lineup, which also saw sets from Playboi Carti, Trippie Redd, Ski Mask the Slump Dog, Cozz, Jack Harlow, and Killy.
But it was headliner J. Cole that truly blew us away, making up for the absurd amount of time spent in line (for both parking and food), heat, dirt, and white teenagers brazenly using the N-word. In stark contrast to Migos before him, J. Cole had no flashy gimmicks or tricks up his sleeve; no smoke machines, no on-stage posse or hype man, no catchy-yet-inane hooks about stir fry or crock pots. It's not that there's anything wrong with that–certainly there's a place for it in hip-hop, as evidenced by the 20,000-strong crowd. It's just that J. Cole didn't need it–any of it.
He appeared simply, wearing a Bob Marley T-shirt and sweats, backed by two female singers and a band more than happy to cede the stage to him. He ran through a good portion of the track list from his just-released album, KOD, while sprinkling in some deep cuts ("Can't Get Enough") and just enough up-tempo singles ("No Role Modelz") to keep the crowd rapping along. A master lyricist, Cole's work takes sharp turns from funny ("Wet Dreamz") to political ("BRACKETS"), veering between sung choruses and break-neck rhymes. Whether mournful or celebratory, Cole is deeply honest, and he delivers his bars in such a way that you can't help but listen closely as if hearing them for the first time–even if you know every word, which most of the crowd always did.
Cole gave a spirited, glorious performance, truly the crown jewel of JMBLYA. During his set, he briefly reminisced about his first-ever sold-out show–held here, at Warehouse Live–and seemed genuine in his love and gratitude for Houston "day-ones." Lucky for us, we get him back on August 15 (with Young Thug, too) when the KOD Tour touches down at Toyota Center. He's come a long way from Warehouse Live, but his work and his concerts? Just as good as ever.