It’s been a while since J. Cole had an album reviewed at RR Towers. 2013’s “Born Sinner” and 2014’s “2014 Forest Hills Drive” were both covered by Jay Soul and it’s almost unforgivable for a rap review website not to have covered subsequent albums from one of the biggest rap stars of the last decade. What often happens on staff is “Oh, someone else will want to cover that, someone more versed in that particular artist” which does mean there’s a risk of one voice speaking on an artist, but it’s always better to have a writer familiar with the rapper’s catalog, their journey, and their strengths/weaknesses. Occasionally though it means big records slip through the cracks. So here’s a quick refresher on Cole in case you’ve been under a similar rock to us!
Since his 2011 debut; “Cole World: The Sideline Story”; there were the two aforementioned albums, followed by 2016’s “4 Your Eyez Only” and 2018’s “KOD”. ALL WENT PLATINUM. Hell, even his label’s compilation “Return of the Dreamers 3” went number 1 on Billboard. All his albums have topped the charts, including this new one “The Off-Season”. No wonder Cole is frequently cited as one of the Big 3 rappers of the past decade (alongside Kendrick Lamar and Drake).
“The Off-Season” was released alongside Cole’s debut in the Basketball Africa League – he signed for the Rwanda Patriots. That’s right – Cole’s not just dropping wildly popular music but is now a professional athlete too. It’s not exactly the NBA, but it’s a great way of shining his spotlight on a part of the world that’s often overlooked (and taken advantage of) for its athletes. Whether it’s athletics or soccer, many of the best athletes have origins in Africa yet none of the top leagues are actually based there. Hopefully, it’s not just a PR move to help promote this album.
My opinion on Cole’s music is ultimately this: he has standout songs but none of his albums get played front-to-back. “Land of the Snakes”, “Forbidden Fruit” and “Let Nas Down” are all excellent examples of melancholic backdrops easing you into Cole’s matter-of-fact style. “Wet Dreamz” is a modern classic and demonstrates the shift in mainstream rap whereby showing vulnerability and upfront honesty is now not just accepted but welcomed. It simply wouldn’t have existed twenty years ago. That said, I’ve tried to put my finger on why many older rap fans aren’t convinced about J. Cole. I wouldn’t say he has a lot of haters, so much as doubters. This was touched upon by Jay in his review of “2014 Forest Hills Drive”: “J. Cole doesn’t actually have any signifiers, anything particularly distinct about him“. I agree – Cole doesn’t really have unique character traits or an easy-to-describe persona. This gimmick-free style often represents the era of rappers using their real names, talking about real issues utilizing pacey flows and inoffensive production. I’m thinking Cordaes, JIDs, and Logics. These artists are often more authentic than any so-called real hip-hop representatives, yet it’s difficult to identify obvious greatness within their discographies because while they are skilled rappers they suffer from a blander brand than their predecessors possessed. You’re buying into their content rather than their character, which is why Cole’s best songs (in my opinion) are his conceptual or story-driven numbers. When he’s just rapping, it’s all a bit beige and nondescript.
Cole fans will inevitably disagree – and I’m not denying his ability to craft exceptional songs – but I went into “The Off-Season” thinking “OK Jermaine, show me what makes you so special“. For the most part, this is a typical J. Cole record, but musically it’s his most diverse project to date, for better and for worse. There are some impressive one-liners (“I’ll put an M on your head like you’re Luigi’s brother”) and some surprising superstar guest features in 21 Savage and Lil’ Baby. If any album of Cole’s has shown his willingness to try to branch away from the perceived dullness of his self-produced earlier work, “The Off-Season” certainly provides more obvious attempts.
The inclusion of Cam’ron and Lil’ Jon on “9 5 . s o u t h” atop a beat eerily similar to Jay-Z’s “U Don’t Know” feels like the perfect blend of rap nostalgia and rowdy energy designed to gee up listeners for the rest of the record. Cole does deliver a more aggressive performance, albeit one including an odd (unnecessary) hint of Autotune. It’s followed by “a m a r i” and “m y . l i f e”, the former a booming bar-heavy track interspersed with Autotuned melodic rhyming akin to something Drake might make; the latter a peculiar riff on Styles P and Pharoahe Monch’s classic anthem “The Life” that sees Cole and 21 Savage fire off some machine-gun flows.
Cole’s usual bassy aesthetic, which sometimes drifts dangerously into nightclub toilet audio, punctuates the stronger offerings. Ironically, Cole’s music often isn’t suited to clubs and I find he’s more successful when beats allow him to stamp his authority with the rhymes. The North Carolina emcee is a masterful storyteller and clearly, it’s one of his strengths, so having a crazy dope instrumental isn’t always going to benefit him.
The warbled bass on “a p p l y i n g . p r e s s u r e” threatens to distract from Cole’s verses, but there’s enough aggression and playful structures that lend it all a Busta Rhymes or Method Man feel. The video helps, given it’s set on a train much like “What’s Happenin'”.
There are a few songs on this album that fall into the unremarkable camp: “1 0 0 . m i l'” is an underhanded way of rubbing your nose in Cole’s wealth and success that doesn’t really suit his persona and “p r i d e . i s . t h e . d e v i l” leans on the hybrid sung rap Cole’s perfectly capable of pulling off but it is less successful than the more soulful efforts, particularly with Bas. Speaking of which, Bas lends his silky vocals to “l e t . g o . m y . h a n d”, an introspective track with some memorable lines and a fun little jab at Puffy to boot. This is easily my favorite style of Cole song and it’s why he works so well with R&B collaborators like Ari Lennox and the wonderful Janet Jackson (on “No Sleeep”). Similarly, “h u n g e r . o n . h i l l s i d e” (again with Bas) sees Cole continue to dwell on his legacy and the internal conflict of success and respect. You can tell he’s ultimately not satisfied with his place in the pantheon of hip-hop history and this track is another reason why Cole can be a great. Remarks like “I kept fuckin’ hoes until I realised I is the hoe” highlight his ability to craft memorable bars, it’s just some of the music on “The Off-Season” that lets him down one too many times.
One of the better tracks on “The Off-Season” is the emotive “p u n c h i n ‘ . t h e . c l o c k” where you can feel Cole opening up and leaving more of a mark in the process. There’s enough life in the TaeBeast production for Cole to ride it rather than simply attacking it, it’s just a shame it’s over before it really gets going.
Cole self-produces “t h e . c l i m b . b a c k”, probably the best song on the album for rap purists as he plays with his flow while reeling off ferocious wordplay, not unlike prime Jay-Z. The fact the beat sounds like a Blueprint-era production only enhances this feeling. It’s a song aimed at his fans who have been there since his first arrival on Roc Nation, but one that also gives weight to his status as a heavyweight emcee even though he continues to doubt himself.
Cole is wildly popular and his ability to weave between self-doubt over his output, and claims to being the GOAT, capture why he has so many fans. He’s human. There’s a very real, dare I say relatable feel to Cole’s music that “The Off-Season” continues to highlight. Unfortunately, it’s a few songs short of being a great album as Cole experiments with some different styles of production that aren’t always successful. Cole’s nearly-man mentality produces a nearly-great album, which is all very on-brand and his quest to craft his “Ville-Matic” moment (as he states on “c l o s e”) will inevitably continue.