With little warning, J. Cole announced Nov. 17 plans to release his third studio album, "2014 Forest Hills Drive." A mere three weeks later, on Dec. 9., Cole said there would be no singles and no videos prior to the album's release. He wanted the focus to be on the music.
Cole's ambitious plan — a 360-degree turn away from the normal hip-hop promotional playbook — worked beautifully. His album has been widely praised, and Tuesday brought news that he moved 361,000 copies in the first week of sales, easily placing him on top of the Billboard 200 charts.
In a HuffPost Live roundtable Tuesday, three guests — RESPECT magazine editor-in-chief Datwon Thomas, Philadelphia radio personality Layla St. Clair and Duke black popular culture professor Mark Anthony Neal — dissected Cole's place among hip hop's elite and how he's differentiating himself from his peers.
"What's amazing about this new recording is that he handles all the production. When everybody in hip hop got to have a guest and a whole posse on the track, it's just J. Cole," Neal said. "When you see that performance he did on David Letterman the other night, that's one of the most amazing live performances of a hip-hop artist that you'll see, particularly in this particular moment in time."
Cole has not only made headlines about his music, but also his activism, as he participated in some of the Eric Garner protests in New York a couple weeks ago. He also played that memorable performance of his Mike Brown tribute song, "Be Free," on Letterman last week.
"The timing is perfect," Thomas said. "He's speaking on a lot of things that I think a lot of the kids in his generation are going through right now. But it's also a really good way to see how hip-hop artists are just throwing the music out there, even if it is a major-label release."
Among the so-called "new age" rappers, Cole is part of a trio at the top, along with Drake and Kendrick Lamar. Most would argue the latter two — with Drake as the commercial hit factory and Kendrick as the lyrical mastermind — have a leg up on Cole. Neal disagreed.
"I think right now, a lot of folks see J. Cole as kind of being in Kendrick's shadow, but I think 10 years down the road, when we take accounting of what this period in hip hop has been, J. Cole's going to be right there," he said. "If not right next to Kendrick, then a little bit ahead."
"FHD" is Cole's third studio album, following his wildly successful sophomore effort, "Born Sinner." The latter was released on the same day as Kanye West's "Yeezus" and has outsold West's record.
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