The Off-Season: A Review
After what felt like an eternity, J. Cole returns from the bench and onto the courts of rap with his newest release The Off-Season, a project that pushes the artist to experiment with his style in self-defined writing drills aimed at pushing his limits to reach a new skill level. In the past, Cole has been known for his more grounded and serene projects that focused on substance over lofty production. In what seems to be a flip on those principles, Cole tries his hand at what can only be defined as one of the most hype releases of the year as he utilizes renown producers such as T-Minus, Timbaland, Boi-1da and Jake One to imbue extra energy into his tracks. Despite the tonal flip-flop, Cole still manages to find himself honed-in on the concept of self-improvement as this project serves as a reflection on the rapper’s superstardom and how he fights complacency out of love for his craft. With all this being said, does Jermaine manage to achieve a slam-dunk or is this project slated for the bench?
The Off-Season has one of the best starting track line-ups I’ve heard since Kid Cudi’s Man on the Moon III, which is something I didn’t expect to see surpassed for some time. The first track “95. south” is the perfect tastemaker for this project as it features orchestral levels of production with blaring trumpets, thumping bass and phenomenal percussion; creating a wonderful combination of mood, atmosphere and tangibility as you feel every beat. Cole’s flow is both confident and controlling as he spits some of the most volatile bars of his career, with the intro line “This s**t too easy for me now” setting the tone for the entire project swiftly and effectively. This song specifically feels like an experience towards the end of its runtime as choirs of Cole’s squad shout what feels like war cries that resonate in your head, creating an intense and memorable energy that carries throughout the tracklist.
The second track, “amari”, utilizes woodwind-focused production and Cole’s flexible flow to bring us back to the days before Cole’s fame; painting a picture of the less-than-ideal surroundings he grew up around and how he vowed to escape them. On this track Cole tries his hand at what can only be described as chilling vocals around the half-way point, where he reflects on the tribulations of becoming famous and wealthy as people in his inner circle try to take advantage of him. While most of the track remains stagnant, the middle section stands as a testament to the concept of this album as Cole tries a new lane vocally that I believe is executed flawlessly and suits this track well.
Lastly, “my. life” is the end of the intro tracks as Cole brings his all both lyrically and vocally into my favorite song on this project. Being another track focusing on life before the fame, Cole shares some of the traumatic experiences he witnessed as he interpolates the iconic chorus from Style P’s “The Life” with emotional vocal work from Morray; the first hidden feature on this tracklist. The energy and flow Cole exudes doubles down on the tone set by the prior tracks, marking "my.life" as a foundational pacemaker for the rest of the album. In what is both a surprising move and a welcome addition, Cole also features 21 Savage on this track, which is a combination previously seen on Savage’s “a lot” which was very well received. Of course, this still rings true as 21 Savage brings his all to this track, delivering devastating bars about his past tribulations that add extra authenticity to the track covering each rappers “underdog” story.
The rest of the album holds up well as Cole continues to focus on his theme of self-improvement while maintaining a consistent level of intensity. While some of the tracks do slow down a bit, they still are thematically linked which creates somewhat of a storyboard of Cole’s mind state in recent years. One thing Cole mentions consistently is the idea of retirement after he releases “The Fall Off’, which he has alluded to potentially being his next (and final) release. This is what has spurred him to test his limits creatively and push himself so that he has no regrets later on in life, which is a mind state many of us can relate to.
Other tracks I found notable are “applying.pressure”, “pride.is.the.devil” and “hunger.on.hillside” which I find are the other strongest tracks on the project; each bringing unique tones that add to the versatility of this album.
“Applying.pressure” is a boom-bap inspired track that hip-hop fans looking for substance and a familiar sound will enjoy in mass. This track features Cole reflecting on his wealth and the raps that brought him to his level of fame as he explores different perspectives that modern rappers aren’t really covering.
“Pride.is.the.devil” is produced by previous Cole collaborator T-Minus and utilizes the same guitar sample as Amine’s “Can’t Decide” off of his album Limbo (an album I previously covered here). Cole rides the beat flawlessly on this track as he discusses the downfall of pride and how he overcame it. Lil Baby is also featured on this track with some well written bars and a switch-up of Cole’s flow, making him a great asset to this track.
“Hunger on hillside” is the final track off The Off-Season and serves as a thematic and humble outro featuring some of Cole’s most insightful verses on the project. Cole showcases his wonderfully powerful yet vulnerable singing voice as background choirs compliment his melodies in what can only be described as mirroring a heavenly symphony.
To summarize, this album is a thematic and immersive experience that you can easily find yourself listening to in its entirety. The pacing of this album is phenomenal as the high energy in the beginning is slowly stripped away towards the middle of the project as it culminates into the intrinsic and inspirational outro. The overall weakness of this project can be summarized as somewhat weak bars from Cole that don’t seem as polished as his last release. The depth is there lyrically, but not as much as his past releases, which some can argue (myself included) that this can be seen as Cole switching focus in his music from concept to presentation in this particular instance. The lyrical downplaying alongside the very short length of the project (39 mins, 32 minutes removing tracks released as singles) can be seen as hurtful if you were looking for a longer cut to kill time. Personally, I find this project is an overall great addition to Cole’s discography as it adds something he was arguably lacking in the past: energy. At the cost of expected substance, Cole spends his time defying expectations and experimenting with sounds that are all well-executed and don’t come off as pandering.
It is because of these reasons that I give The Off-Season a 9/10.