J. Cole's "Forest Hills Drive" & The Rise of the Surprise Album

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I would always look forward to my sporadic, Tuesday afternoon trips to Best Buy. It would happen every few months, whenever my favorite artist decided to ask for my support in the form of a $9.99 compact disc. I’d imagine this is how my father purchased albums in his heyday; I laugh at the thought of him walking into FYE to buy 2Pac’s All Eyez On Me, Jay-Z’s Blueprint and Lil Kim’s Hardcore. These albums still sit in the backseat of a 2001 purple Mazda that’s in dire need of a new engine. Two out of three of those albums sit in my iTunes, on a hard drive that’s in dire need of a Norton Full-System Scan (goddam you Big Booty Hipsters Vol. 5...and 6).

Our method of obtaining music in 2014 might be different, but the music is the same. It's music. The biggest difference is the overall experience; my father can launch into nostalgic spiral of stories that surround these albums and their purchase. All I could really do is delve into how much I love Gangster Rap Talk.  Now that I’m older, I want to follow in his dated footsteps, knowing that a big change is coming and the CD-R will eventually become much like the cassette, on the brink of extinction. To my surprise, a change seems to be coming faster than I anticipated. 

When the rumors started to circulate that J.Cole would be releasing a “secret” album, I assumed it was a hoax. My day doesn’t officially begin until Twitter kills three childhood movie stars and I see a fake Frank Ocean tracklisting. I placed this Jermaine album in the same box of manure. I’ll admit his current, rough appearance is taken from Jay-Z’s album preparation playbook, and he has been as quiet as Wendy Williams in a room with Timbaland, Missy Elliott and R. Kelly, but a last minute album to close the year just felt far-fetched. Well, I was wrong, and J.Cole will be dropping his third studio album, Forest Hills Drive, on December 9. He’ll be going to war with Lil Wayne's vaguely anticipated but still potential soundscan juggernaut Tha Carter V (Part 1). There will be no single, or releases of any kind. In three short weeks we will hear the album in its entirety. That’s about the time it took Frieza to reach his final form on Namek.

The fans are anxious, like children that just got word that their least favorite teacher is pregnant by the janitor and are counting down the days until her maternity leave. There’s an exciting spark in the air, a wonderlust that can only be summoned by the looming unknown. Yesterday, we didn’t even know it existed, and now we hunger for Cole's album like hipsters when they see iPhone blueprints.

Deep down though, I wish we never knew, that the secret was still contained and December 9 had the magic of Beyonce’s surprise album. That night was pure disorder and madness. It was like people lacked the mental capacity to comprehend that a new Beyonce album appeared out of a magician’s hat. Never-before-heard songs, never-before-seen videos, the beehive buzzed for days. It’s safe to say Cole’s album is an aftershock of Beyonce's quake, inspired by the campaign-less campaign. We don’t know the features, the song titles, we don’t know anything, and that goes against every marketing rule that has been implemented in the digital age. We need selfies in the studio, Breakfast Club interviews, behind-the-scenes footage of the coming soon behind-the-scenes video of the video. Cole is delivering nothing but music, and I love it.

But what if Forest Hills Drive is an aftershock that inspires even more quakes? Can you imagine waking up every day jubilant about the idea that an album is dropping and you have no idea what’s on it?  Surprise releases create an experience, one where the product isn’t diluted by pushbacks, leaks or half the album being pushed to blogs (cough, cough). All the excitement that is spawned by the sudden release is surged into social media; the connection will also allow us to have a united experience, like watching The BET Awards, minus the fashion slander. I’m not looking forward to the disastrous music reviews that will follow. Blogs are too competitive about being first, without an advance copy, I’m imagining the album reviews will be 50% gifs and 50% memes, and very little substance. Unless journalists adapt, embrace the surprise, enjoy with the public, and dissect in private. Really get their hands dirty, same with interviews – there’s no reason for generic questions when you have an album worth of questions waiting to be asked. I loved that about Yeezus, seeing Kanye speak about the project after it was received by the public.

As I type this someone is downloading Jaden Smith’s new album. Not through iTunes, Soundcloud, Bit Torrent or Zippyshare but straight from the iPhone App store. Call the kid crazy, but packaging your album as an ad-free, application for iPhones is creative. Yeah, Jay Z tried it with Samsung, but I feel like the idea and video campaign was more impactful than the actual lasting effects. Jaden’s album was also spontaneous; warning of the release came as a tweet a few hours before the link was liberated.

This is a direct-connection to fans. No need for blogs, or a mailing list to play middleman. We are stepping into the age where all the traditional rules and regulations are being dismantled before our very eyes. The seeds are being planted, sadly in digital soil. As we cross one bridge, what is left behind will become an after-thought, a piece of an old regime. Those Tuesday trips to Best Buy that have become calls to Comcast about WiFi issues will someday become "trips" to the app store. This progress is good; J.Cole is giving us a moment we won’t forget. He has our attention. If he drops his “magna-opus,” then I might have to dust off the word “classic.” Is there any other word for when timeless music meets a culture-altering experience? Yes, that’s exactly what that word was born to describe. And then what if Forest Hills Drive becomes the standard? What if every artist releases their project without pre-announced releases dates and pre-release marketing campaigns? What then? Is it already happening? Has it already happened? 

We'll find out on December 9. See you then.

(By Yoh, aka The Hakuhō Shō of Rap Blogging, aka @Yoh31.)

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