ALBUM REVIEW: J. Cole, The Off-Season
Throughout the late 2000’s and 2010’s, J. Cole dominated the charts, impressing both critics and fans alike. His run began with three legendary mixtapes, The Come Up, The Warm Up, and Friday Night Lights where he crafted his origin story, and cultivated a passionate fanbase ever eager for his music. It’s difficult to capture how truly transformational Cole’s first appearance on the scene was. In the late 2000’s, hip-hop tastes had shifted more towards pop, and the community was focusing its attention on cities like Atlanta rather than New York. Besides Nicki Minaj and ASAP Rocky, two artists who have never carried the torch as GOATS, New York didn’t really have a rapper that could fill the shoes of 50 or Hov/the Roc. For many hip-hop heads, the tradition of lyrical rap was dying, and slowly a counter movement, consisting of rappers from TDE, Odd Future, ASAP Mob and Cole’s yet to be born Dreamville emerged to fill that void. This had a monumental effect on the culture, and frankly set the scene for the idiotic mumble rap vs lyrical debate that would plague the 2010’s. You can see this especially in the work of J. Cole, and his contemporary, Kendrick Lamar.
I bring this up to say that I completely understand the hype surrounding J. Cole at the start of his career. It was legitimately well earned and his work from that period is pure gold. Add to that, Cole’s origin story of moving to New York to gain the attention of The Godfather, Hov, grinding through three successful mixtapes, and then being the first artist signed to Jay Z’s Roc Nation, and you can see why he got such fervent praise at the start of his career. Cole has managed to accomplish feats that most of his contemporaries still dream of. Cole then went on to drop his first album Cole World: The Sideline Story, which proved he had mainstream potential with songs like “Can’t Get Enough,” “In the Morning,” “Nobody’s Perfect” and the sad boi classic, “Work Out.” This was an album Cole fans could be proud of, but in 2013, Cole would drop his sophomore project, Born Sinner, a record that is not only the best work of his career, but also a classic masterpiece of the times. A record so timeless you could literally hear yourself listening to it at future cookouts. It was the soundtrack to our high school years, the album for the pre-game, the party and the come down. It was an album that could stand proudly against Kendrick’s psychosis fueled good kid, m.A.A.d city and Drake’s Nothing Was the Same. Track after track on this record was fire. "Villuminati", "Land of the Snakes", "Power Trip", "She Knows", "Rich N*ggaz", "Forbidden Fruit", "Crooked Smile", and "Let Nas Down" are all phenomenal and classic. Unlike Kendrick and Drake, these songs were palatable enough for casual listeners and hip-hop fans alike, and Cole’s work was unifying rather than divisive. The success of Born Sinner was then followed up by the lauded 2014 Forest Hills Drive, a project that I think begins Cole’s decline as an artist.
Since his release of Forest Hills, and throughout the rest of the 2010’s, J. Cole’s work has evoked strongly divisive conversations within the hip hop community. On one side, there are critics who claim that Cole’s work has become increasingly boring, repetitive, and mediocre. On the other are fans who claim he’s still the GOAT and don’t ever seem to have a bad thing to say about the artist. Coming off of the spectacular success of Born Sinner, the world was Cole’s oyster. Armed with the full might of Roc Nation behind him, and the ability to call on any producer or feature, Cole made a completely featureless album that he did most of the production on. At the time, it seemed like a baffling move, but one that Cole justified by claiming that the choice was in service of his goal to be the first rapper to go platinum with no features. Personally, when I think of producers I think of people like Kanye West, Pierre Bourne, or Zaytoven. The last person to come to mind is probably Jermaine Cole. Despite all of the hype and praise surrounding the album, in hindsight this record was highly forgettable, and really only contains three songs truly worth listening to again ("Wet Dreamz", "No Role Modelz", and "Love Yourz"). I’m not even going to get into the art bro vibes in the song naming convention, but overall this record reeks of a lack of imagination. I believe the success of this album despite all of its shortcomings was a major catalyst in the fall of J. Cole.
Cole continued this trend of isolation on his record 4 Your Eyes Only, the first record that began to draw the widespread criticism of Cole being boring. Again, there are no features on this project, and Cole handles most of the production. I can’t lie ya’ll, I don’t remember a single song off of this shit and I didn’t even make the effort to listen to it again. It’s that useless. I hope someone out there loves this album and gets something out of it, but it's not me. This album was released in 2016, and was decidedly slower and more introspective than the popular rap songs coming out of the Soundcloud generation. This juxtaposition of sounds in the scene led to Cole’s next project, KOD, a record where Cole spits more relevant verses, but continues his trend of taking it on solo, only featuring an artist called kiLL Edward (Editor's Note: Pretty sure kiLL Edward is just J. Cole with a different voice). It’s sad that there are really only two relevant songs off of this album, “Kevin’s Hart”, which is legit a good song, and "1985 - Intro to 'The Fall Off.' Fuck, 1985. This song is the foundation of this new J. Cole persona. A track where he takes a patronizing tone and throws stones while hiding his hands, coming at the mumble generation in a tone that reeks of jealousy and desperation.
The Off Season is exactly what you’d expect from J. Cole in 2021, albeit a lot wiser than some of his latest releases. The album is a brisk 40 minutes long, with 12 tracks and a few features this time. Going into this, I didn’t have high hopes for Cole. The first song we heard from this tape was “the.climb.back,” a dark, moody boom bap track. Here, Cole raps about the inevitable return to sadness and depression that we all reach as humans, singing, “Everything come back around full circle, Why do lies sound pleasant, but the truth hurtful? (Yeah) Everybody gotta cry once in a while But how long will it take 'fore you smile?” Question marks were raised in my head when he dropped his second single, a track simply titled “Interlude”. This was a cool song. We get to see Cole embrace his vocals, singing his entire 2 minute verse as he reflects on friends he’s lost to violence, how lucky he is to be successful, and how he uses this as his fuel to keep going. Cole raps, “Woah, thank God we survived around where the terrorists hovered, Though traumatized, wouldn't trade it for nothin’, Through hard times, it was there I discovered, A hustle and makin' the best out the struggle, I kept grindin' 'til this day, up a level.” The song is a nice treat and the sample used fits really well in the moody but hopeful tone of the track. When we dig further into the album however, we can clearly see that Cole has not fully returned to the form he possessed back in the 2000’s/early 2010’s.
I’ll begin with the good. The production all over this album is spot on. Cole has enlisted the help of outside producers for this record, and you can hear it in the diversity and crispness of the production. When it comes to producing Cole has been a one trick pony for far too long, so it’s refreshing to hear an updated sound on this album. Immediately it feels more present and relevant, especially on songs like “pride.is.the.devil” and “amari.” The irony here is that Cole is embracing a trap sound on these two records, something I’m sure his fans appreciate and a decision I’m sure he knew he needed to make to remain relevant. Additionally, this diversity in production and features makes the album’s sequencing flow quite well. Transitioning to from “amari” to “my.life” was a great feeling. And speaking of the features, Cole chose a perfect ensemble to support him, and the contributions from 21, Baby, and 6LACk were really well chosen. A lot of the problems with Cole’s work has actually been fixed by this one change in production. Every song feels like it’s own idea, and there is an internal logic that the album follows. As usual, Cole does especially well on some of the slower songs that allow his storytelling and lyrical introspection flourish. On “let.go.my.hand,” Cole does just this, as he raps about raising his son, and his fear of passing his insecurities and trauma onto his child. The song employs a wavy sample that Joey Badass would definitely have murdered. “hunger.on.hillside” is another banger, a triumphant anthem featuring a Gang Starr influenced sample. There’s definitely some good songs on here, and it’s the most reminiscent to Born Sinner than he’s been in a while. Cole’s flow and intonation all over this album is also something to admire. He spends a lot of time integrating his singing into his raps (another element of the mumble), and for the most part it works really well since he doesn’t overdo it
While Cole improves in a lot of areas on this album, it’s really difficult to climb out of the kind of hole that he’s dug himself into. While the production has improved, his own creativity has not by much; he’s just gotten wiser at playing to his strengths. While it’s cool that he has 21 Savage on “my.life,” and Lil Baby on “pride.is.the.devil,” both of those songs are very dull. “my.life” is basically an “A Lot” remake, and “pride.is.the.devil” sounds like every guitar sampled pop song we’ve heard since Gunna and Juice Wrld dropped. It feels like the world has moved on and Cole is just catching up. Cole also suffers from a lack of thematic vision in this work. The Off Season is an album that taps into the nostalgic past of Cole’s previous tapes, however, in 2021 Cole’s life couldn’t be a further from that. It often feels like he can’t decide if he wants to be seen as humble and hard working, or a boss that can flex on other rappers. This is painfully witnessed on the end of “applying.pressure,” where he goes on a minute long rant about flexing. This is coming from a man who, for the past eight years, has criticized the post-2016 generation for being focused on vanity. Pride is the devil right?
Although Cole has taken some steps in the right direction, he has failed to produce an album worthy in comparison to any of his previous work. It’s sad to have to write this, since going through Cole’s discography has reminded me of the talented young man we witnessed conquer the industry so many years ago. I think Coles documentary, Applying Pressure: The Off-Season Documentary, shows that Cole feels this way to a degree as well. The entirety of the doc is focused on Cole reconnecting with his roots. In the doc, he makes an interesting point when describing his high school ball career, saying he realized that he didn’t put his all into the sport, and how his friends had an intervention for him when they felt he was doing the same with his music. I have a feeling someone had a similar conversation with Cole in the creation of this album, and I hope he continues on this trend of updating and expanding his sound. I’ll end with a quote from the doc, “This past five years has been a fight against comfort. I was chillin. What I noticed was, with that feeling of comfort, I’m like “Damn, this is the moment that a lot of your favorite rappers hit a crossroad where they did what the fuck they set out to do, and then the fruits of their labor started working against him. That same energy and passion that they put into the craft was gone, and replaced by comfort and luxury.” I’m really proud of Cole for having the courage to speak on this reality, and I hope he can continue to step out of his comfort zone.