Album: “The Off-Season”
Artists: J. Cole
Label: Dreamville Records
Release Date: May 14
J. Cole has been on a stellar run the past ten years. After landing five consecutive albums at the No. 1 spot on the Billboard 200, he went on a run of exceptional features in 2018 with rappers like 21 Savage on “A Lot” and Dreamville labelmate J.I.D. on “Off Deez,” before he released “Revenge of the Dreamers III,” a project which allowed Cole to curate the best and brightest rappers — in and out of his label — to release his own “Cruel Summer.”
Now, after three years without a solo album, the North Carolina rapper returns with his most aggressive album to date, “The Off-Season.” Releasing a documentary last week titled “Applying Pressure: The Off-Season Documentary,” Cole makes it clear that he is pulling no more punches; he is intent on reaching his peak potential before he can “comfortably relax.”
On the album’s opening track, “95. South,” J. Cole establishes the complexity of his lyrical ability, as he shuts down all competition and makes some clever references right off the bat:
“This s--t too easy for me now / N---a, Cole been goin’ plat’ since back when CDs was around / What you sold, I tripled that, I can't believe these f-----g clowns / Look how everybody clappin’ when your thirty-song album do a measly hundred thou’ / If I'm bettin’ on myself, then I'll completely double down / If you hated on a n---a, please don't greet me with a pound / 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.”
After Cole wraps up his excellent verses, he surprises listeners with a sampling of Lil Jon & The Eastside Boyz track, “Put Yo Hood Up,” which helps close out the intro and establish the album’s invigorating energy.
Notably breaking his seven-year-old tradition of not including features on solo albums (all of which have been certified Platinum or higher in the U.S. by the RIAA), Atlanta rapper and past collaborator 21 Savage provides an excellently heartfelt verse about his past:
“I got some partners who left this Earth / Maybe the pain made a better me / Just know that they secrets is kept with them / I feel like the streets is in debt with me”
One of the album’s most fascinating guests is professional basketball player Damian Lillard, whom Cole samples a speech from after Lillard’s historic 61-point game on the appropriately titled “punchin’. the. clock,” which refers to the amount of time J. Cole has put into perfecting his craft.
One of the album’s strongest tracks comes in the form of “let. go. my. hand,” where a slumber beat produced by Cole himself provides a backdrop for a more reflective Cole, as the artist looks back on his accomplishments and his future.
“I wanna be my biggest fan, like how I was when didn’t nobody know my jams / Today my son said, ‘Dad, let go my hand’ / Reminded me one day he’s gonna be his own man”
Even without top-tier lyrical ability, “The Off-Season” is packed with some of the best production in recent memory, including talent from J. Cole himself, Boi-1da and T-Minus. Cole is in a much different mental state than his party music days of “Cole World: The Sideline Story.” The beats on “The Off-Season” create a somber tone which properly accompany the wiser, more experienced Cole.
Despite being released in Summer 2020 on his EP, “Lewis Street,” “the. climb. back.” is the album's pinnacle, with Cole unleashing some of the most head-turning braggadocious bars in years.
“To the left of that decimal, I need seven figures to play the joint / Turn up your decibels, peep how I decimate a joint / Check out my projects like them workers that Section 8 appoints / And you’ll see how I flipped like exclamation points”
With only two planned projects left in “The Fall Off Era,” only time will tell when and what J. Cole’s next album will be. Even so, fans can rest easy knowing “The Off-Season” is another instant classic in the Fayetteville rapper’s discography, and easily one of the first solid contenders for rap album of the year.
Alex Falter is the assistant arts editor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org