J. Cole reverts back to fiery lyricism with plenty of features on ‘The Off-Season’

 By Jamel Smith

May 16, 2021

Cole, North Carolina’s own god emcee, released his sixth studio album The Off-Season on May 14. Upon the album’s announcement only a couple weeks prior, fans around the world waited with anticipation, fueled by nostalgia as the album title reintroduced a signature theme in Cole’s artistry: basketball. 

Accompanied by a 12-minute album-centered documentary, The Off-Season was revealed as the [unofficial] third installment of Cole’s basketball-themed releases: The Warm-Up and Friday Night Lights. However, this time, he’s not a rookie trying to grab the ear of Jay-Z for a record deal. He’s now a rap veteran with a storied career with classic albums, blockbuster tours, and universal respect. 

He’s not trying to get on the team. He is the team. And not just metaphorically. After years of playing amateur basketball, it was announced the rap star will be making his pro debut in the Basketball Africa League. He is set to play with the Rwanda Patriots BBC team when they face Nigeria River Hoopers.

In his interview with SLAM Magazine, he made several comparisons to his rap career and basketball, which inspired The Off-Season’s album title. Cole shared, “Once you get to the season, it’s too late to get better. […] What you know is what you know. You’re getting that sh** off in the off-season. So, that’s really what [the title] represents. It represents the time spent getting better and pushing.”

J. Cole became the first artist to be featured solo on the cover of iconic basketball publication, SLAM.

His first two projects (officially released as mixtapes) served as proverbial drill practices and laid the groundwork for Cole’s success in the rap game as one of the leading emcees of his generation. The creative and commercial momentum from those projects resulted in back-to-back classics: Born Sinner and 2014 Forest Hills Drive

His subsequent albums, 4 Your Eyez Only and K.O.D., solidified his reign as one of the greatest rappers of his generation— an accomplishment that often precursors a retirement of sorts. Staying true to the example of Jay-Z circa 2003, Cole began ideating life after rap. He even hinted toward a pending retirement through the reveal of his tentative finale, aptly titled The Fall Off, in 2019. After a decade plus in the industry, a 36-year-old J. Cole has made peace with the idea that his time as rap’s “It Guy” could be coming to an end. What’s remarkable, however, is how he desires to leave the game: on top. 

J. Cole performing at Dreamville Fest in 2019. Photo: Pooja Pasupula for CLTure

In his album documentary, Applying Pressure, he ponders the trappings of “comfort and luxury” as a crossroad from which many of his favorite rappers never recovered. He also finally seems to accept the hot topic criticism of his “platinum with no features” philosophy, admitting that while it sounds impressive, he does not desire a self-contained career: “Do [I] really want to look back and be like ‘you didn’t work with nobody?’ No. Okay, well start saying yes to some features.” The rapper-producer credits collaboration as the source of growth in his most recent artistry. 

The result of this growth is a 40-minute album, full of sharp bars over a menu of beats that’ll make your face scrunch and your head bob. As a rapper, Cole reverts back to the fiery and sharp lyricism of his mixtape days. However, this time, he’s enlisted a team of exciting newcomers and veterans to work alongside him. In addition to Cole’s contributions, the album features production from Timbaland, Boi-1da, DJ Dahi, Jake One, Frank Dukes, Tae Beast, Maneesh, Wu10, Sucuki, Colemxn, Tommy Parker, Mario Luciano, and T-Minus. 

Although the effort is identified as an LP, it is structured with the energy of a mixtape. The sonics are front facing with Cole’s voice booming over every bounce and boom bap. Within the first few bars on the first track, “95.south,” it is clear that Cole has found new fire and, after two albums worth of social commentary, he just wants to rap. 

He flexes his staying power in the rap game: “This s*** too easy for me / Cole been going plat’ since back when CDs was around / What you sold, I tripled that, I can’t believe these f***in clowns / Look how everybody clappin’ when your 30-song album do a measly hundred thou’ / If I’m betting on myself, then I’ll completely double down.” It’s this Cole that everyone has been longing for since his mixtape days, the one who combines braggadocio raps with sharp lyricism. 

If that wasn’t enough of a firestarter, the song’s features set a bombastic tone. As an ode to his New York grind and his southern roots, he employs Cam’ron aka Killa Cam to make a cameo appearance similar to a traditional mixtape DJ tag. The track’s complete with a Lil’ Jon & The East Side Boyz vocal sample of their 2001 anthem, “Put Yo’ Hood Up,” guaranteed to make you take off your oversized tee and swing it ‘round your head.

Cole takes every opportunity to show off his dexterity, as he examines the price of fame and what it almost cost him. Tracks like “95.south,” “applying.pressure,” and “punchin’.the.clock” ring off like shots to his complacent past as he reclaims his place in hip-hop. Fellow baller/rapper Damian Lillard’s voice is borrowed on “punchin’.the.clock,” in clips from post-game interviews, specifically after the Trailblazers win over the Dallas Mavericks, and after hitting his famous game-winning three-pointer over Paul George in 2019. 

Tracks like “let.go.my.hand” and “my.life” are the more introspective entries. In the former, Cole parallels his son’s maturation to his own, and uses his infamous fight with Diddy in 2013 to do so. However, in classic Cole fashion, he employs Diddy on the outro to avoid any further rumors.

“my.life” is equally introspective, as it highlights how Cole’s familial issues motivated his success. Back again to make magic with Cole is 21 Savage in one of his most impressive verses since… well, his last collaboration with Cole on the Grammy Award-winning song, “A Lot.” The track also features vocals from fellow Fayetteville artist Morray with a clever interpretation flip of Pharoahe Monch’s chorus from Styles P’s “The Life.”

Other features include Lil Baby on an early crowd favorite, “pride.is.the.devil,” as well as additional vocals from Dreamville’s Bas on “hunger.on.hill.side,” “100.mil’,” and “let.go.my.hand.”  

Overall, The Off-Season sees the best of the Dreamville rapper. Even in its off-kiltered and contextually out-of-touch moments, Cole’s clear vision and execution is to be commended. While the internet debates over how The Off-Season fares in Cole’s full discography, it is more important to note that he is a top-tier emcee that is still choosing to play the game without excuse and to the best of his abilities.

Listen to J. Cole’s The Off-Season.  

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