For the fifth time in five tries, J. Cole has debuted atop the Billboard 200 albums chart with his new LP. The recent semi-surprise release KOD enters the listing at No. 1 with 397,000 equivalent album units earned in the week ending April 26 according to Nielsen Music, more than four times the total for the No. 2 set, Cardi B’s formerly chart-topping Invasion of Privacy.
The figures are resounding: It’s the best first-week numbers posted by any artist in 2018, more than for any album since Taylor Swift’s Reputation started with over a million units in Dec. 2017, and for any hip-hop release since Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. debuted with 603,000 units the prior May. Less eye-popping but equally meaningful is the breakdown of those KOD units: He opens with 215,000 in streaming equivalent album (SEA) units, which is the third-highest tally in history — but also with 174,000 in traditional album sales, second only to Justin Timberlake’s Man of the Woods among 2018 albums.
Viewed in big-picture terms, that split reflects a rare ability of Cole’s: To appeal in equal parts to younger, new-school fans (more likely to flock to streaming services) and veteran, older-school audiences (who traditionally are still responsible for the majority of direct sales). For reference, Timberlake’s 2018-best number of 242,000 sold for Man of the Woods came with just 37,000 in SEA units, while a more obviously contemporary chart-topper like XXXTentacion’s ? debuted with 106,000 in SEA but only 20,000 in straight sales. It’s increasingly uncommon for an artist to post such a big overall first-week number where one of their traditional sales or streaming totals doesn’t end up dwarfing the other, let alone being nearly split down the middle.
That’s where J. Cole is at in 2018, though: He’s a star with a uniquely wide-ranging and loyal fanbase, one that doesn’t appear to be particularly contingent on him producing radio hits or even staying particularly visible between albums.
Consider that Cole’s numbers for KOD are actually down somewhat from the impressive first week of his fourth album, 4 Your Eyez Only, which earned 492,000 units in its first frame in Dec. 2016. But it’s still easily the year’s biggest debut, and it comes with an even more pronounced impact on the same week’s accompanying Billboard Hot 100 songs chart. (Eyez debuted all 10 of its tracks on the tally, including one in the top ten with the No. 7 debut of “Deja Vu”; KOD also debuts all 12 of its tracks on this week’s chart, including a stunning three top tens — “ATM,” No. 6; “Kevin’s Heart,” No. 8; and “KOD,” No. 10.)
It’s a particularly impressive showing, because J. Cole has been far from a fixture in the pop mainstream since Eyez‘ release. Though Eyez did debut all 10 of its tracks on the Hot 100 in its first week, none of the songs climbed to a higher peak in the subsequent weeks — and only one, “Deja Vu,” graced the top 20 of the Hip-Hop/R&B Airplay chart, hitting No. 4 on in April 2017. Meanwhile, Cole has only made a handful of relatively low-profile featured appearances (mostly on deep cuts like Jeezy’s “American Dream” and Miguel’s “Come Through and Chill”) in between the two albums, and has been at best a irregular presence on social media.
Yet despite his mainstream and crossover presence dwindling (he hasn’t even touched the Pop Songs chart since 2013), Cole’s popularity remains unwavering. He’s hardly the first rapper to have his superstardom become reliably and almost entirely detached from his pop visibility, but the others who have — figures like JAY-Z, Kanye West and Drake — are among the biggest names in genre history, with a decade or two of major hits already to their credit. For Cole to join their ranks with only a handful of widely known crossover hits — and never even coming within striking distance of a Hot 100 No. 1 — seems somewhat jarring.
But hip-hop is in a state right now, having supplanted rock as the most dominant music in the popular sphere, where the genre can reliably spawn best-selling artists who are predominantly known for their albums, not their singles. Classic rock acts like Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin were regular presences at the top of the Billboard 200 chart throughout the ’70s despite their singles only sporadically gracing Top 40 radio. Their albums would go on to sell in the tens of millions even without crossover hits, and their songs are among the genre’s most familiar generations later, regardless of their initial Hot 100 peaks (or lacks thereof).
Rap has gone through periods of spawning similar breakout artists — in the late ’90s, Nas, DMX and JAY-Z all became superstars long before their Hot 100 peaks properly reflected it — but even those guys were reliant on MTV and hip-hop radio in a way an artist like Cole simply isn’t. His fanbase is entrenched at this point, and it’s hard to imagine he’ll need any assistance from conventional hit singles to sustain it for the foreseeable future. And it wouldn’t be shocking if 20 years from now, cuts from his catalog that never dominated radio in their own time are better remembered from many of those unavoidable on the charts today.