J. Cole's first album debuted at No. 1, helping ignite a new movement in hip-hop. But for his follow-up, he's taken on a new set of challenges: eschewing guest rappers and producers, going head-to-head with Kanye West on release day and finding himself.

Cole flips through pairs of camouflage cargo pants at a sunny photo studio steps away from Manhattan's elevated High Line park. 2Pac's 1995 opus "Me Against the World" blasts from his iPod, and he knows every word. The wardrobe and soundtrack befit a young man about to go to war.

"It's like Michael Jordan in the fourth quarter: A switch goes off," Cole says, finally settling on a dark green pattern that complements his black suede sneakers (Air Jordans, naturally). "I'm locked in."

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