A Rejuvenated J. Cole Attacks Rap Like a Contact Sport Again on 'The Off-Season'
Published May 18, 2021In the mini documentary that accompanies J. Cole's sixth studio album, the rapper openly ponders a creative crossroads.
Having already proved that he can win on radio with sticky crossover pop, that he can pack basketball arenas as a headlining draw, and that he can also sell platinum without famous guest appearances or hired-gun super-producers supplying the bangers, Cole wondered if he should just hit cruise control. Be a successful label head and talent scout. Sprinkle guest verses. Make beats, but only when inspiration strikes. His legacy and his investment portfolio have afforded the 36-year-old the option to coast into semi-retirement. (Hell, he just made his pro basketball debut over the weekend.)
J. Cole could've continued wearing his solo act like a badge of honour. He could've decided his best writing had already been recorded. He could've faded away like a wicked jump shot.
Nah. Instead, the scrappy wordsmith from Fayetteville, N.C. chose Door Number 2. He picked up a pen. He put on his editing cap. He enlisted outside help to push him. A zoned-in Lil Baby and 21 Savage on the mic. East Coast icons Cam'ron and Puff Daddy on the adlibs, to give his project a sprinkle of bluster and grandiosity. And, most important, A-list producers Boi-1da, Timbaland, Frank Dukes, Jake One, and "Middle Child" beatsmith T-Minus to inspire his couplets.
If 2018's concept-heavy, dangerously didactic KOD was Cole drifting into the player-coach stage of his career, The Off-Season is Cole lacing up squeaky high-tops and drilling 100,000 hours of threes. Refocused and rejuvenated, Cole is attacking rap like a contact sport again. He wants to break ankles, drop jaws and posterize competitors. (Don't believe for a millisecond that Cole doesn't expect his latest to held side to side with whatever Drake and Kendrick Lamar got cooking for the summer.)
Detractors had begun dismissing J. Cole as a self-righteous leader of some "fake deep" movement, that he'd become too above the fray to play ball from his pulpit. Well, from the outset of opener "9 5 . s o u t h," it's very apparent he wants back in the mix. The track — a scorching surprise — is bookended with Killa Cam adlibs and Lil Jon crunk callouts. In between, Boi-1da updates the triumph of Jay Z's "U Don't Know" and Cole blazes some of his best boast raps, complete with a Nas-ism ("sleep is the cousin of death"). Cole's lust for legacy? We see right through it like Tupac hologram.
Quotable punchlines stack up: "I be staying out the way, but if the beef do come around / Could put an M right on your head, you Luigi brother now." And: "Vivid memories, niggas squeeze, we start duckin' down / So many shells on the ground make the Easter Bunny proud." He backs up his boasts with 39 minutes of bars that raise it for 2021.
The Off-Season borders on a mixtape exercise with its brevity, aggressiveness and playful experimentation with a variety of flows. Consider that a compliment when we're talking about an artist who crafted hungry memories on The Warm Up in 2009 and Friday Night Lights the following year. What this new album lacks in anthems, it makes up for in detail and directness.
Creative curveballs abound. "m y . l i f e" refreshes 2002 Styles P single "The Life," with breakout vocalist Morray subbing in for Pharoahe Monch on hook duties. "Punchin' the Clock" deftly incorporates a Damian Lillard interview. "l e t . g o . m y . h a n d" confirms the rumour that Cole and Diddy scrapped at a VMAs afterparty in 2013 and concludes with a prayer from the latter.
The skips are scarce (maybe "1 0 0 . m . i. l '," which asks its audience to relate to the work ethic of a guy with nine figures on his bank balance); the highlights many. "p r i d e . i s . t h e . d e v i l" sees producer T-Minus double-dipping into the same sample he used for Aminé's "Can't Decide" last year, but it kickstarts a thoughtful second half of the record as J. Cole wrestles with hubris before passing the mic to an inspired Lil Baby.
"Close" is a fevered murder dream that features some of the author's most economic storytelling and one of his most razor-sharp rhyme schemes. Clocking in under three minutes and devoid of a hook, the song is just nice rhymes, vivid imagery, and a stinging soul sample.
The Off-Season — an earnest return to blood, sweat and ink — doesn't need much more to hit like swish. (Dreamville/Roc Nation/Interscope)