By Gerrick D. Kennedy
6:34 PM EDT, June 7, 2013
As tourists flowed in and out of the TCL Chinese Theatre in Hollywood on Thursday afternoon, it was easy to spot J. Cole fans once the smartphones and headphones quickly started to outnumber digital cameras.
While cheery vacationers gawked at celebrity footprints, eager fans were waiting for a message on their phones informing them they had unlocked an exclusive stream of Cole’s highly anticipated sophomore album, “Born Sinner.”
The rapper was in New York holding court at a listening session for press and industry hotshots, but he wanted to let his fans in on the experience by announcing on Wednesday that he would simultaneously stream the album in a handful of cities.
But he didn’t just give away the music. Cole made fans work by turning the experience into a high-tech scavenger hunt.
So as the rapper played the record in New York, fans flocked to specific locations s in L.A., Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Toronto, Houston and Cole’s hometown Fayetteville, N.C. But first they had to download a smartphone app called LSNR, which would unlock at the prompted time only if the user were within specific geographical coordinates. In L.A., this placed users in front of Chinese Theatre.
This sort of high-concept unveiling is reminiscent of the way Kanye West recently previewed new music. West sent fans flocking to random addresses in various cities to see a video of his new track, “New Slaves,” which was projected on to the sides of buildings.
At a time when album leaks are expected and eagerly awaited, being able to drum up high anticipation for a project is a rarity -- especially in rap, where mixtape culture has left fans both insatiable and impatient when it comes to new tunes.
West has tightly managed the details behind his sixth album, “Yeezus,” and precious little information has gotten to fans in advance of its release on June 18. Reports of recording sessions in Paris and abstract performances on “Saturday Night Live” coupled with the rapper's well-documented unpredictability only add to the mystery.
And while a leak of Cole's “Born Sinner” popped up online shortly after the listening sessions, the rapper has already built a loyal following through his generosity that will most likely be returned on the album's release date.
Cole spent most of Friday trending on Twitter with rap fans, many of them promising to buy the album despite the leak and others vowing not to steal the album. Cole eventually put the album up for stream on his website, likely to discourage downloads.
Like the rollout of his 2011 debut, “Cole World: The Sideline Story,” the Jay-Z protégé has offered fans goodies as he worked on the album, dropping two EPs as he continued work on “Born Sinner.”
In a recent interview, Cole was asked why he purposely moved the album up a week to square up with West. “How many opportunities do you get to compete with one of the greatest?" he told Billboard. He even raps about the decision on the album track, “Forbidden Fruit.”
It's a bold statement, and the music on Thursday’s virtual listening party proved those ambitions were warranted.
While his stellar debut shot straight to No. 1, thanks to years of touring and issuing free mixtapes, “Born Sinner” shows the young MC has mastered what his chart competitor West learned long ago: Ignore radio trends and deliver a focused and ambitious disc that makes a statement.
Ultimately, whoever lands at No. 1 that week isn’t important. What matters is two talents at different stages of their careers have managed to find innovative approaches to releasing music at a time -- and within genre -- where playing it safe is all too common.
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