A young, diverse crowd showed up for J. Cole’s ‘Forest Hills Drive Tour’ featuring Big Sean at Austin360 Amphitheater on Saturday night. They showed up by the thousands — the show was sold out — and they showed up ready to get down. Even in the seated section no one bothered rest their feet during either man’s set. They danced, they sang, they rapped along to every word of every song. They turned way up, even on the slow jams and listened intently during the show’s many reflective moments. Both rappers put in emotional, high energy performances and by the end the crowd was clearly lifted.
Big Sean hit the stage to the sound of "Paradise" a fast-paced, hard driving track at the center of his latest "Dark Sky Paradise." The song puts his verbal dexterity front and center with sharp lyrical twists and a furious flow during a sustained breakdown in the middle that sets up an explosive beat drop. The crowd went wild.
Predictably, he saved his biggest hit, the breakup tirade "I Don’t (Expletive) With You," for a set closer and for the most part his set maintained a forceful rapid pace, but the most poignant part came in the middle. Sean’s voice naturally carries a hint of melancholy and like his mentor Kanye West, he’s well-suited for dramatic storytelling. With raw honesty, he shouted out his grandma, who recently passed. (Mildred V. Leonard was one of America’s first black female captains during World War Two and went on to serve on the police force in his native Detroit) Then he used his warm memories of the woman who helped raise him as a springboard to real talk the crowd. He encouraged his fans to follow their dreams and surround themselves with positive people to help bring those dreams to life. Then he back-to-backed "One Man Can Change the World" and "Blessed" to drive the point home.
J. Cole’s show was structured around his 2014 album "Forest Hills Drive." With only a few detours he played it straight through. The introspective album chronicles Cole’s personal journey from his youth in the small city of Fayetteville, North Carolina to international stardom. The set was a ramp crafted into an assimilation of a rickety house. As the lights went up Cole sat alone on it, with a massive screen behind him that would shift from pastoral images, to various cityscapes throughout the show. The screen was split, with his eight-piece live band mostly obscured behind the bottom half of it.
Cole is a sensitive huslter with a sing-song flow. He’s more interested in the aspirational messages that form the through line of his work than the haters who dismiss his R&B rap hybrid as soft. The album is loaded with lush songs that beg to be fully orchestrated and hearing them with a live band was sublime. He came in with the album’s intro, a slow-moving, lilting call to action that poses the simple questions "Do you want to be happy? Do you want to be free?" With meandering melodics and no backbeat, it was a bold way to enter, but it set the tone well and the crowd loved it, getting wildly hype to a relatively mellow track.
To say most of the songs on "Forest Hills Drive" are mid-tempo is generous, but Cole is a master of melodic hooks and the audience rocked along as raucously to slower songs like the coming of age tale "Wet Dreamz" and the hazy daydream "St. Tropez" as they did to legitimate bangers like "A Tale of 2 Citiez" with the punishing refrain "Hands in the air now, hands in the air."
As a performer, Cole has fantastic intensity and the connection he sought to forge with the audience felt very genuine. He said he liked the way live shows gave him an opportunity to speak directly to his fans and his goal was to make "this big (expletive) venue feel as small as possible."
He occasionally rambled, but most of the long winded stories were circuitous stabs at peddling positivity, so all was forgiven. After completing a run through of "Forest Hills" he graciously thanked the audience for allowing him to present the album as a work instead of just cherry-picking the hits. Then he took the show out with a slew of hits "Can’t Get Enough," "Work Out" and "Crooked Smile" that left a happy crowd cheering ecstatically.