This past Monday, me and about 19,000 others watched J. Cole perform at The O2 Arena for his second London show in as many nights. It wasn’t the first time he’d performed there on tour and it won’t be his last. But before the 4 Your Eyez Only World Tour ever left North America, before the jumbotron and the orange overalls, Cole and the rest of Dreamville performed 13 dates at intimate venues in places like Baton Rouge, Jacksonville and Greensboro.
It’s vital for a rapper of Cole’s stature to visit those smaller markets whenever possible to give those fans their deserved dose of their favourite rapper in the flesh like those in big cities get every time, but to say that was the only reason those dates were announced wouldn’t be telling the whole truth.
“I’m like a comedian who goes out in these little, tiny cities and works out his act and then he goes and does his arena tour.” — J. Cole
J. Cole wisely uses those dates with smaller crowds to work out the kinks in his live show. Rather than jump straight into a worldwide tour risking glitches on the literal big stage, he steps foot in the more forgiving, friendlier theatres first. It’s about perfecting the performance so that there’s as little as possible to worry about when it comes to performing in an arena.
As acknowledged by the rapper himself, it’s a method used predominantly by even the biggest comedians, namely Louis C.K. and Kevin Hart. A few years ago, the former would make surprise appearances at small comedy clubs in New Orleans and perform brand new material, completely free of charge, for 30 minutes to an hour. It was neither to boost his ego nor to do any of the other comedians on the bill a favour, but instead to help build the skeleton of what would become his next special and to do so in a much more raw environment than he was used to.
The small comedy clubs are so raw and brutally honest, in fact, that it’s not unusual for someone even of Kevin Hart’s calibre to bomb. But that’s how the shows we see on TV are crafted.
“We go to all of these places that you wouldn’t expect to see me at and I do a shitload of shows. And then I walk out with ‘yo, we got something’. And now I say ‘we need to do this for a year’.” — Kevin Hart
A concert and a comedy show are similar in a few ways but different in a lot of other ways. What is the appeal for a rapper to go through with this process?
One of the main ingredients for a show which leaves fans satisfied is one with a well sequenced setlist. This means not only including all of the right songs, but including all of the the right songs in the right order so that the energy is not necessarily high, but strong from start to finish. If a crowd of 900 people doesn’t react well to a certain song at a certain point, you can bet you’ll get the same reaction from a crowd 20x bigger. A song like ‘Ville Mentality’ is eons more impactful early in a show rather than later.
All of the breaks for monologues have to be in the right places too. A J. Cole show is unlike any other show in that he often stops to explain the premise of songs before, after and sometimes while he performs them. This works well before ‘Love Yourz’ but would have quite the opposite effect between ‘A Tale Of 2 Citiez’ and ‘G.O.M.D.’.
Another key factor is that the band has to know when to stop playing because the crowd wants to scream certain lines. I know that I’d have felt robbed if I couldn’t scream the ‘Power Trip’ chorus at full volume a capella. It takes a few different nights to learn how fans have lived with the album and where those moments lie.
Luckily, the concept of an intimate show is not foreign to any of the Dreamville crew, especially not the head honcho. The North Carolina MC’s Dollar And A Dream tours (where fans line up for 8–9 hours for the opportunity to see the rapper perform his less popular, more cherished material at a modest setting for $1) see him lose thousands of dollars every night. However they give the star a much required chance to reconnect with his most dedicated fans, the ones willing to wait anxiously for an entire day without the promise of a show. J. Cole is no stranger to putting the live experience above all.
A few rappers could learn from this approach. It would be a win-win for a Kanye West or a Lil Wayne to announce a string of dates in areas hungry to see them live where they perform music exclusively from The College Dropout or Tha Carter. Hardcore fans would feel valued and it would remind both of the aforementioned superstars of humbler times, likely benefitting their current quality of output. Even the best can be hit or miss at times.
The general consensus on 4 Your Eyez Only to this day is that while it’s not necessarily bad, it is Cole’s least impressive album and one of his more lacklustre body of works as a whole, mixtapes and label compilations included. I would bet that anyone who attended a show on the 4YEO World Tour whether it was in Birmingham, Alabama or Birmingham, England will agree that the music sounded infinitely better the next day and even if the album isn’t being played from front to back all day, it’s at least appreciated now.
That’s the best thing a concert can do for a fan more than help them party. If a show can help listeners’ ears grow, it’s done its job tenfold. J. Cole has mastered this and every year with his unmatched vocals and stage presence, solidifies himself as Hip-Hop’s leading performer.
– by Akaash Sharma