J. Cole was crowned as the next-level “MC” to carry on Hip Hop music’s tradition in spite of wacky trends and pop crossover blends at the top of last decade.
Looking back at his initial 10-year run, it’s safe to say he’s has handled the pressure fantastically.
In fact, the first-ever Roc Nation artist released his sixth studio effort The Off-Season on May 14, but was cooly nowhere to be found on the traditional promo circuit. The 36-year-old from an American elbow in Fayetteville, North Carolina became a professional athlete through the Basketball Africa League, a NBA subsidiary.
The unprecedented flex brought full circle the basketball “shtick” that permeated much of J. Cole’s early stage act, most notably on early mixtapes The Warm Up and Friday Night Lights. By mirroring the hard-work ethos the hardwood requires in addition to his own lyrically detailing of his own tumultuous upbringing, the journey of Jermaine Cole became relatable with an entire generation, arguably just as much as Drake’s — no matter what the awards say.
Which makes The Off-Season such an intermediate affair.
One on hand, J. Cole fans will not only rank some of the album’s nimble lyricism amongst some of his most crafty but on the other, especially after a three-year album hiatus, the paltry 39-minute runtime doesn’t begin to scratch the surface of any of its scattered topics.
Things kick off with the “95.south,” the album’s most energetic track and a nod to Cole’s North Carolina travels. However, in the midst of the weird Cam’ron + Lil Jon mashup atop the rousing post-crunk beat, (the year 2004 would never), Cole’s drive feels more obligatory than inspirational. While he ensures to delight with his bars (“I be stayin’ out the way, but if the beef do come around/Could put a M right on your head, you Luigi brother now), the subject matter feels like his well-documented material of the past — a theme that lapses much of the project.
Feeding into Hip Hop’s current short-song circus on “punchin.the.clock,” Cole delves into a rhyme labyrinth that spirals nowhere; highlighting by Dame “D.O.L.L.A.” Lillard’s soundbites gaslighting the Mario Luciano & Tae Beast-scored track to sound more motivational than it really is. The ruminative “l e t . g o . m y . h a n d” (named after witnessing his young son gain independence) revisits the infamous Diddy fight five years too late in an effort to give the album bite.
Much like the song motifs, The Off-Season’s score is largely understated and undertone. Cole, ever the capable producer, has also experienced his fair share of fan flak for not pitting his intuitive lyricism with equally talented producers. The Timbaland-assisted “amari” proves the magic ultimately falls on the beatpicker as the Verzuz co-creator, T-Minus, Sucuki and Cole all combine for a relatively limp staccato blitz of guitar loops.
Despite the casualness of everything, The Off-Season still earns buckets from the level of microphone craftsmanship he’s developed for himself and the melodies it brings. He lyrically dribbles on beat on the self-produced “applying.pressure,” a b-boy banger if there was ever such a thing. He gets teachy on the otherwise catchy “p r i d e . i s . t h e . d e v i l” while breaking his featureless streak with a red-hot Lil Baby verse.
Dreamville artist Bas also serves as an unsung hero, providing melody to flesh out tracks such as the aforementioned “let.go.my.hand” and 4th quarter finisher, “h u n g e r . o n . h i l l s i d e.” While the latter record finds Cole once again lamenting over his past opposition like he’s not Mt. Rapmore royalty but also brings out the Young Simba through a flurry of verbal exercises that reward the listener sticking out the project.
After quite the year in 2020, a rap star like J. Cole was but expected to set the latest standard in Hip Hop music. The Off-Season lives up to its name: the warm-ups never fully come off and the stakes feel relatively low, if nonexistent altogether.
While the subsequent The Fall-Off album may complete the puzzle, The Off-Season feels like J. Cole’s most unimaginative project to date but still can warrant repeat listens.
That’s how much he’s lapped his competition.