Kanye West vs. J. Cole: You Buying It?

May 22nd, 2013

(Photos from left: Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images, John Ricard/BET)

By Jake Rohn

June 18 has suddenly become an important date for hip hop fans. A few weeks ago, Kanye West confirmed the release date for his latest album, the controversially-titled Yeezus. A short time later, J. Cole decided to move up the release date of his highly anticipated sophomore album Born Sinner to that same day.

You may remember back in 2007 when ‘Ye similarly went toe-to-toe with 50 Cent, pitting his Graduation album against 50 Cent’s Curtis in a move that generated about as much hype as a prizefight. Always the master of showmanship, 50 stirred the pot by announcing that he would retire if Mr. West outsold him. Rolling Stone magazine even put the two on their cover in a face off that looked like the latest UFC fight. 50 lost the battle, with Curtis selling 691,000 to Graduation’s 957,000.

Though 50 took an ‘L’ on that one, the hype garnered millions of dollars in free press including the aforementioned Rolling Stone cover and a “weigh in” style confrontation at that year’s MTV Video Music Awards.

It’s widely understood that it would be an upset of epic proportions if Cole even came close to outselling Yeezy, but both just created a palpable buzz surrounding the date, and with the hype comes the free press. After this, how many new people now know about J. Cole’s album that maybe didn’t before?

If this is not a move that is thought up by the record label, it should be. When artists that are even remotely on the same scale square off, it’s like reverse psychology on the consumer. Though the headlines pin it as a competition, the real message: Buy both!

There is no doubt that on June 18, when people go on iTunes (and, yes some will still go to the record store), they might only intend to buy one but the other will no doubt be in their mind. Afterwards, Billboard will declare a winner. But despite one of Jay-Z’s more famous proclamations, the numbers don’t tell the whole truth. Cole and Kanye will have BOTH won.

Hip hop often does not get enough credit for the entrepreneurial endeavors its artists and executives have come up with over the years and this is no different. Though the idea of big albums coming out on the same day is not new, the idea of marketing it as a competition means everyone wins.

The UFC has become one of the biggest moneymaking machines in American sports, and a big part of that success is the hype that gives the fans a narrative. And for all of the trash talk, people find someone to cheer for and against. No matter who wins, the numbers are huge. Music is no different.

The hype machine is something that has driven consumers for years, and just like with anything else, the best way to create interest is to make it competitive. Give the people a storyline and they will follow the characters.

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