Concert Review: J. Cole and Big Sean at Perfect Vodka Amphitheatre

The mark of a truly great rapper/performer/band always lies in their live shows. And hip-hop concerts are often hollow and full of shouted gibberish. Tuesday night, during what was essentially a minifestival at Perfect Vodka Amphitheatre in West Palm Beach, Big Sean and J. Cole proved that they aren't your typical rappers. On this stop of the 2014 Forest Hill Drive Tour, they were able to not only match the energy and the quality of their records but to surpass them, each in their own special way.

First up was Jeremiah, who opened first with a sleek and sensual R&B set, and YG, who followed with a rough and rugged rap riot. The latter, a Compton native, channeled his hometown hero, Dr. Dre, with a few of his classic beats, the main hook from "The Anthem," and calls to put guns in the air (no one did, thankfully.) The West Coast rap disciple was clearly trying to cash in on the momentum created by the recently released NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton. Illustrating that he can be as dangerous and as controversial as his idols, he chanted "show them titties" over and over again to what was essentially a group of mostly middle- and high-school girls.

As the first two openers warmed up the arriving crowd, it became clear before long that in terms of size, this was going to be a big deal. The sold-out show brought together three counties' worth of fans, a large contingent of the nearly 20,000 fans making the trek from Miami to Palm Beach.

From the word go, the evening’s first quasi-headliner, Big Sean, operated under the “I'm here for a good time, not a long time” mindset. Although his time was that of an opener, he curated a fan-pleasing set list with plenty of raucous highs and thoughtful ballads. Since his last South Florida appearance, at SunFest in 2013, Big Sean has stepped up his game as an MC and he's elevated his profile at large, and thus the production value of a Big Sean concert is ten times what it used to be.

A faux liquor store complete with neon lights (including crosses and "Welcome to Paradise Liquor" signage) and bars on the windows served as the Detroit rapper's backdrop. He first popped up on the roof to rile up the crowd before teleporting to the ground floor and firing off a breathless free rhyme tailor-made for the Sunshine State.

Later, "Dance (A$$)" thumped through the air, decorated with a flurry of colors and an amphitheater that swayed along to the lights. Well, the folks under the roof did anyhow. The lawn was stuck listening to a muffled, distant show as the speakers facing the cheap seats were completely off. About five songs in to Big Sean’s set, they erupted to life, sounding sharp and lacking any bass, like the noise screeching from a shitty old car rolling down the street. It's a shame the technicians at Perfect Vodka couldn't get it together considering how solid Big Sean was during his set. Worse yet, the issue wasn’t really resolved all night. Fortunately, he and J. Cole put on a monster show that eradicated any thoughts of a subpar sound system.

After dancing with Rico the Lion, a silent hype man/mascot hybrid, during Kanye West’s “Mercy,” he left the crowd with a message of positivity and dreaming big. He thanked Florida for being one of the biggest crowds he had back when his debut, Finally Famous, first dropped, reinforcing that sentiment with "Blessed” before making his exit on the heels of his latest hit single, “I Don't Fuck With You.”

J. Cole emerged from behind a curtain stooped on an abstract interpretation of a house that looked more like a spaceship wing than a clapboard family home. Jazzy saxophone notes twinkled through the air as Cole rap/sang "Do you want to be happy?" He answered his own question with an effusive opening number and an even more important question for the crowd: "Can I perform the whole fucking album for you?" referring to his latest, 2014 Forest Hills Drive. Damn right you can, a suddenly very happy audience responded.

Cole took Florida on a journey beginning with the wildly popular coming-of-age track "Wet Dream," chronicling Cole's teenage quest to lose his virginity. For the most part, he performed the album in order, start to finish, backed by a live band complete with a saxophone, drums, guitar, and piano. A natural storyteller, Cole imbued each song/tale with the appropriate, necessary emotion – fear, confusion, anger – resolute in his desire to bring the words to life, to truly make fans feel and not just hear what he had to say.

Some of the songs had the feel of a slam poetry throwdown. He managed to keep a balance with shifts in moods assisted by a silky chorus of backup singers and video clips that reflected the tone of each track, such as a tranquil underwater ocean scene for “St. Tropez.” In between songs, he took the opportunity to speak directly with the people about goals, metaphors, MySpace, breaking into the business, and the trap of small-town mentality. He was clever, funny, charming, inspirational, and brutally honest, like a foul-mouthed preacher from the streets.

Midway through, Cole broke away from the new album to play a couple of oldies for those who were with him since his mixtape days, when he first came up with The Warm Up and Friday Night Lights. He joked about fake asses that feel like wet cement, Instagram chicks, Hollywood frauds, and women who “don’t want to be saved” before launching into “No Role Modelz.”

After a duet with Jeremiah for “Planes,” he took the reins as a crooner, karaoking Paula Abdul’s “Straight Up,” which is also the hook for his 2011 platinum-selling single “Work Out.” While Cole may not be a great singer, he still sells his choruses with a heartfelt conviction that's hard to ignore. In fact, everything Cole does, on record or on stage, is executed with that same fervor and belief in himself. Sure, fans could sit at home and listen to J. Cole through their Beats, but why would they pass up an experience like this? 
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Angel Melendez is an unabashed geek and a massive music nerd who happens to write words (and occasionally take photos) for Miami New Times. A graduate of Florida Atlantic University and an accomplished failure at two other universities, Angel is a lush and an insufferable know-it-all, and has way better taste in music than you. His wealth of useless knowledge concerning bands, film, and Batman is matched only by his embarrassingly large collection of Hawaiian shirts and onesies.
Contact: Angel Melendez