It makes sense that during a SXSW that was notably devoid of the massive stars of last year’s fest — Kanye West, Prince, Lady Gaga — that a show with the potentially massive rap confession artist J. Cole would draw a crowd. But even Cole, whose 2014 Forest Hills Drive quietly became the best-selling rap album of 2014, seemed taken aback by the sheer amount of people who tried to attend his Saturday night ACL Live showcase at the Moody Theater. Earlier in the day, as tickets went on sale, lines wrapped around the block, looking like they held triple the venue’s capacity. Cole referenced as much during his set, thanking everyone repeatedly for waiting so long to get in.
For those that did stand in line, the show as worth the wait. Dreamville, the label founded by Cole in 2007, has only three artists on its roster, but all of them had a moment to shine, in true SXSW showcase fashion. While Kanye West — arguably the most pervasive rumor of the festival — never materialized, the Dreamville crew’s sets were thoughtful and brief, with little room for guests anyway.
The takeover started with Omen, a lyricist from the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago, who played two songs and had to overcome the same technical difficulties that had plagued an earlier set by Joey Bada$$. Next up was Cozz, the rising L.A. rapper who Cole signed in 2014 on the weight of his video “Dreams.” “A year ago this month I dropped a video called ‘Dreams,'” Cozz told the crowd before playing the track. “And it changed my life forever.” Last up was Bas, whose full-length Last Winter dropped last year. The Jamaica, Queens rapper, played “My Nigga Just Made Bail” off the record, to the greatest crowd reception yet. “Go buy that shit if you don’t got it,” he told them. “Get that shit illegally. I don’t give a fuck.”
When J. Cole finally came out — 45 minutes later than his scheduled set time — the crowd had reached a chanting fever pitch, with a mosh pit forming partially in the middle of the floor. To their relief, he opened with “Wet Dreamz” and the entire multi-level venue erupted. “Normally I’ll be performing the whole album,” he told the theater, referring to last year’s surprise LP 2014 Forest Hills Drive, but tonight it would be just a sample. He also went on to give a shout-out to the fans who had been “fucking with me for days,” and showed his respect by launching into a furious rendition of 2010’s “Friday Night Lights” — to which many in the crowd seemed to know every word.
There were no frills in Cole’s performance —Drake didn’t show up for “In the Morning” as was also rumored, and the rest of the Dreamville crew never came out again — but it was fitting that it was just the rapper and the crowd. His lyrical introspection found a perfect venue in the receptive audience, and despite the show’s packed capacity, it felt like one of the most intimate hip-hop shows of this year’s festival.