J. Cole Helps Us Decide Whether Big Arenas Or Smaller Venues Offer The Best Concert Experience

For as long as hip-hop has existed it has done so in sweaty, small venues where the crowd is often pressed into the stage and the artists are no more than an arm’s length away from their adoring fans in the front row. As hip-hop’s commercial appeal grew, though, so too did the size of the crowds, then the venues themselves. Now, rap music is being played at arenas and stadiums before tens of thousands of fans at once. While that’s great for the genre — and artists’ bank accounts — there are some who feel that the old-school, intimate feeling at rap’s core has been lost, or, at least, irrevocably eroded.

When No. 1-selling artists like Drake, Kendrick Lamar, and J. Cole come to towns now, it’s rarely to show out to the 5,000-capacity (or lower) sized rooms in which they got their respective starts. K-Dot wouldn’t be pulling up to The Good Hurt in 2021, even if its organizers had kept it going for the 15 years since he became a household name. Which is why, when J. Cole announced a throwback, small-venue show at The Roxy on Saturday for SiriusXM and Pandora’s Small Stage Series in Los Angeles, just two days after his headlining tour stop at The Forum in Inglewood, I jumped at the rare opportunity to compare the proverbial apples to apples and determine just which live experience really is best.

Another thing that helped the comparison: Cole used the same setlist (with the needed adjustments for absent guests) at both shows. The theme, according to the man himself, was “real fucking bars.” While many tours would focus on playing the hits, J. Cole wanted to try something different: bringing a focus to the lyrics to a new setting, the arena tour — a similar principle to the renewed focus on tongue-twisting displays of vocal virtuoso on his new album, The Off-Season. Of course, that doesn’t mean there wasn’t room for some of his hits, but when he opened the concert with the assertive “85 South,” it was clear that this wouldn’t be the typical arena show.

Like the artwork for the album, the stage revolved around a basketball theme, with a massive flaming hoop behind Cole. The man himself truly dressed for the occasion, wearing a Dreamville jersey in the signature colors of the iconic NBA team that once racked up multiple championships in the legendary venue. The joking Mount Rushmore meme made an appearance on the big screens. Cole’s band, ready to embellish every song with live instrumentation — a favorite was playing a snippet of Wu-Tang Clan’s “C.R.E.A.M.” during “Punching The Clock” — played from recesses upstage, allowing the focus to be entirely absorbed by the rapper and his occasional guests.

After running through impressive displays of breath control on “100 Mil” and “Let Go My Hand,” Cole finally launched into his “classic shit,” playing his older songs grouped by album/era. From 2014 Forest Hills Drive: “tale of 2 cities,” “GOMD,” “No Role Modelz,” and “Wet Dreams”; from his debut album Sideline Story: “Nobody’s Perfect,” “Workout,” and “Can’t Get Enough”; from his 2013 sophomore album Born Sinner: “Power Trip.”

He also played a few of his feature verses. His verse from Jeremih’s “Planes” got a warm reception and when Ari Lennox popped out to do “Shea Butter Baby” and “BMO,” the change of pace was welcomed by the audience. From Revenge Of The Dreamers III, Cole played *Under The Sun,” then Bas returned for a blitzkrieg performance of “Down Bad” under an image of the Dreamville lineup. Returning to The Off-Season era, “The Climb Back” and “Pride Is The Devil” preceded one last feature, “The London,” (during which Cole joked he finally started getting features on his own albums yet forgets his guests’ verses), then he was rejoined by tour openers 21 Savage (who happened to be celebrating his birthday) and Morray to close things out with “My Life.”

At the Forum, these songs rumbled to life and washed over the 17,505-capacity crowd. There’s a certain sound quality you only get from the massive systems available in big venues like this, but for all the bellowing bass and bone-rattling decibels, Cole’s vocals never got lost in the mix. This is an impressive achievement in itself, made all the more potent by that theme of “real bars.” The clarity of his rhymes anchored the show, making his newer songs feel all the more vivid and vibrant by the realization that there were no recording tricks, no punch-ins or retakes for him to fall back on. He can really, really, really, rap like the athlete he depicted himself as in the rollout to The Off-Season’s release.

Oddly enough, this element worked slightly against him in the closer confines of The Roxy. Acoustically, with his band packed around him on the 20-foot-square stage, their playing filled the room, sometimes overtaking the backing beats and threatening to drown him out — especially the drums. However, some deft on-the-fly remixing by the sound engineer throughout the set mitigated this, while the crowd — made up almost entirely of Cole diehards — weren’t just capable of picking up the slack, they relished it. When the whole crowd jumped in to finish lines and the like, the effect felt like it had more impact in the tighter space despite the disparity in the number of voices joining in. It was also fun to hear Jermaine’s vocals on “Let Go My Hand” as he filled in for his compatriot Bas, who had moved onto Red Rocks in Colorado with the rest of the Dreamville roster.

The smaller space had the added effect of increased crown participation, too — and vice versa. When Cole called for everybody to get their motherfucking hands up, he was able to see the one person in VIP with their hands down and gently call them out. He required fewer preambles between songs to catch his breath because he had less real estate to cover to perform to everybody in the room. He teased people who fake knowing the lyrics at shows (no one in particular here, but Lebron James sprung to my mind). The mic went out halfway through his “Can’t Get Enough” verse. His face said it all but he kept rapping and it worked out. The screams of encouragement from the audience were one thing… But then he did a reprise. It was the exact sort of unrehearsed, spontaneous moment that literally can’t happen at an arena show, hammering home the sense that it was a special, one-of-a-kind performance in a way that a rapper’s insistence that “this” city is the best one could never convey, no matter how many times they repeat it.

At the big show, things were professional and smooth, but impersonal. At the smaller one, sure, there were hitches, but Cole seemed all the more human for them. The sense of community and connectedness was greater at The Roxy; more than once, I had to shrug off an overly enthusiastic neighbor, which felt like a gift and a curse. Obviously, don’t touch people without their permission — but being part of what felt like a single organism, rather than just another seat number in a faceless crowd, is why these events even exist, right? The experience at the smaller show, especially with such a big artist who played so many fan favorites, amplified the communal enjoyment. As much as I enjoyed seeing Cole interact with his friends and collaborators, watching him do so with the people who came to see him had a different impact. (Also, getting home from the Forum with the parking and rideshare situations there can be an utter nightmare, adding a layer of unnecessary hassle that detracted from the afterglow).

It might seem elitist or snobby to say, but if you can, go to the small show. It’s harder to do, it’s rarer to experience, but it’s worth it. And if you can’t, go to the big one! It’s a fun night out, you get to see all the cool stage effects the artists worked out beforehand, there are usually surprise guests, and you will never hear better sound quality unless you’re in the studio with the artists when they’re recording the songs (the ultimate elitist experience, sorry). You really can’t go wrong with either choice.

J. Cole’s exclusive performance as part of SiriusXM and Pandora’s Small Stage Series will air on SiriusXM’s Hip Hop Nation channel via satellite (ch. 44) and on the SXM App on Tuesday, October 26 at 6:00 pm ET.