Is J. Cole’s ‘The Off-Season’ The Best Album of His Career?
Coming of age in a era where hoop dreams and rhyme schemes are the most popular choices for young Black youth to create a legacy for themselves, J. Cole has merged his passion for the former with his talent for the latter. Cultivating the over-arching theme of overcoming adversity while preparing one’s self for the opportunity of a lifetime, the avid ball player and respected lyricist who was first introduced to listeners via his trilogy of basketball-themed mixtapes, has since strayed away from that creative plot during the past decade. From self-reflective moments of introspection (2014 Forest Hills Drive) to a state of address (KOD), Cole has taken a more cerebral approach to his craft, which has earned him the respect of his peers and purists alike. He has also been pegged as pretentious or heavy-handed by detractors. That said, those critiques have done little to diminish the returns, as Cole has established himself as one of the more bankable stars in hip-hop, placing himself within rap’s superstar trinity alongside Drake and Kendrick Lamar.
Having compiled a decorated resume for himself, Cole has reached the pinnacle of success and achievement, a space that every professional strives to exist in, but has the propensity to foster a state of complacency and false sense of security. For Cole, that harsh reality is a fear that admittedly reared its head in recent years, acknowledged by the man himself itself in the Applying Pressure: The Off-Season documentary, which preceded the release of his latest album, The Off-Season, which was released on Friday (May 14th.) His first full-length solo release in over three years, The Off-Season marks the longest length of time between solo projects of Cole’s career. But it’s with good reason — a few things have changed in Cole’s personal. For one, he’s added another son to the family, which was indirectly confirmed in his 2020 essay “The Audacity.” And, secondly, he’s been busy building his Dreamville Records roster into a budding powerhouse, with key talents like J.I.D., EARTHGANG, and Ari Lennox all on the precipice of superstardom.
But the biggest change is Cole’s increased talk of retiring from the rap game. He’s released a defacto exit plan dubbed “The Fall Off Era,” which is slated to culminate with the release of his wildly anticipated sixth solo album, The Fall Off. Financially secure, with a first ballot ticket to the Hip-Hop Hall of Fame, the only thing left for Cole to do is attempt to raise the bar even higher — a mission that’s accomplished on The Off-Season.
Famous for shunning features and guest spots on his albums, Cole throws a curve-ball at listeners off the rip with “9 5 . s o u t h,” as Cam’ron sets the tone with cocksure commentary. Bookended with chants from fellow southeast compatriot Lil Jon, “9 5 . s o u t h” marks a departure from previous introductory cuts from Cole, as he aggressively sinks his teeth into the Boi-1da produced track. This more relaxed, yet free-wheeling approach from Cole is a formula that instantly draws listeners in and keeps them engaged throughout the proceedings, with the rapper treating this occasion like a lyrical open-gym run where he’s playing within the flow of an offense rather than running variations of scripted plays.
However, The Off-Season is far from lackadaisical or lacking in structure. The composition of selections like “a m a r i” are the product of a craftsman whose attention to detail has been refined and nurtured over time. This also manifests itself in his willingness to share the spotlight and spread the wealth, as newcomer and fellow Fayetteville rep Mooray takes a page out of the book of Pharoahe Monch with his stirring performance on “m y . l i f e,” a song that interpolates “The Life,” Monch’s early 2000s collaboration with Tribeca (which was then remade by Styles P). Featuring a guest spot from 21 Savage, “m y . l i f e” is an example of Cole hitting on all cylinders and makes for one of the stronger compositions on The Off-Season.
One constant throughout The Off-Season that’s subtle, albeit prominent, is Cole’s various off-hand references to his wealth, which is currently north of “1 0 0 . m i l ” according to the rapper himself. Yet, that figure is less of a flex and more of a testament to his relentless pursuit of greatness and immortality within his genre and culture, an itch he wants to scratch as he looks toward the backend of his career. To gain the praises and trappings of the rap world, only to sacrifice the soul in your music along the way is a familiar pitfall that Cole is determined to prolong or avoid altogether, intentions he makes clear incessantly, such as the Lil Baby-assisted cut, “p r i d e . i s . t h e . d e v i l” and The Fall Off hold-over “t h e . c l i m b . b a c k.” These moments find Cole contemplating the cost of success and the moment when the juice becomes less than worth the squeeze, from an emotional and spiritual standpoint. The song that best encapsulates the best that Cole has to offer is “l e t . g o . m y . h a n d,” a track in which he delves into the inner-workings of his psyche as a youth and how it informs the man and father he’s become, while also revealing a physical confrontation between him and Sean “Diddy” Combs. Survivor’s remorse remains in the air on “c l o s e,” which finds him revisiting the death of his close friend James McMillan Jr. to gun violence in his hometown of Fayetteville, but is not as thick in the air as on previous offerings. Nor is his fixation on the ways of younger rap artists. Instead, his focus is placed on where he will go from here and the steps and perspective that will help take him there, which is by creating meaningful music that speaks to his reality.
The product of his fight against comfort and the trappings of luxury, The Off-Season presents J. Cole as a living legend more concerned with chasing ghosts and competing against history rather than basking in the fruits of his labor and riding into the sunset. Simply put, he still has more to do and prove, if not to anyone else, to himself. This is reflected in his decision to make his professional basketball debut with Rwanda Patriots BBC of the new Basketball Africa League earlier this month, making good on the hoop dreams that helped define his initial run as one of the more promising prospects in the rap game. Now, with The Fall Off, which he’s deemed his “most ambitious” album to date, in its final stages, and It’s A Boy, the clandestine album preceding the The Fall Off’s arrival, on the docket, it’s starting to appear like Cole’s talk of early retirement is him arriving at the crossroads that is a decade’s worth of success, which can often create burnout or boredom, depending on the circumstance. However, while Cole may be preparing for his opportunity to “fall off,” The Off-Season marks his most consistent and entertaining project since 2014 Forest Hills Drive and gives us the belief that he has even higher heights to climb to before it’s all said and done.
Banner Photo Credit: Steven Ferdman/Getty Images
Preezy Brown is a New York City-based reporter and writer, filling the empty spaces within street and urban culture. A product of the School of Hard Knocks, Magna Cum Laude. The Crooklyn Dodger. Got Blunt?