Favorite Track: "m y. l i f e (with 21 Savage & Morray)"
Least Favorite Track: “t h e . c l i m b . b a c k”
Braggadocio has never been a foreign concept to the world of hip-hop. Whether it be the endless cycle of stealing other rapper’s women or flexing the immense amount of fame and money you may have accumulated, rapping has an unspoken prerequisite that you become obsolete if you aren’t consistently making yourself out to be more attractive, more successful, and more important than your peers. On J. Cole’s 2018 track “1985 - Intro to “The Fall Off””, he takes aim at the new generation of rappers that find value and popularity in rapping about drugs, women, sex, and money, with Cole taking an almost fatherly stance on the track. “You gotta give a boy a chance to grow some/Everybody acting like they know something these days” he raps, taking moral high ground after the blunt “Fuck J. Cole'' diss track that had circulated the internet courtesy of up-and-comer Lil Pump. For those who were previously opposed to J. Cole, this track may not have done much to bring them into his corner, but “1985” at least made for some great commentary and prescient observations. J. Cole proved himself to be the visionary that he wanted to be on the track, and it seemed that it could be leading him into a new, well-thought out, and fully realized phase of his career.
Unfortunately, his next album after 2018’s KOD does little to prove that the lyrical greatness displayed on “1985” was anything but a fluke. 2021’s The Off-Season is a severely disappointing outing for Cole on nearly every front. The production is uninteresting, boasting a mixed bag of beats that range anywhere from a raucous, obnoxiously over-the-top attempt at a cathartic opener with “9 5 . s o u t h”, to an incredibly dull and sleepy cut like “p r i d e . i s . t h e . d e v i l (with Lil Baby)”, that essentially recycles the beat from Amine’s 2020 track “Can’t Decide”. The former is a track that tries so hard to be triumphant and braggadocios that it falls flat on its face, when the end result is something that could barely soundtrack an NBA 2k video game. The latter is a relatively somber and emotive moment that has its sentiments squandered by the painful amount of pride and braggadocio present on the rest of The Off-Season.
With so many less than favorable things to say about The Off-Season, it seems fitting to at least acknowledge the things that Cole does well on this LP. First of all, there are some genuine lyrical gems. From hilarious lines like “Put an M right on your head/you Luigi brother now” and “Check your genitalia/Pussy ni**as bleedin’ on yourself'' to genuinely heartfelt moments like “Around these parts we pour brown just to drown these thoughts/Of black bodies in county morgues, lord those images hauntin’”, Cole proves that despite the slew of evidence against him on this record, he can still write some decent bars here and there. There are also a few tracks where his energy is palpable, and his performances really shine through despite some lackluster production. The features on the record are also quite well placed, with a staggeringly beautiful chorus from Morray and a great guest feature from 21 Savage on the track “m y . l i f e”, and what may be the single best performance Lil Baby has ever laid to track on the aforementioned “p r i d e . i s . t h e . d e v i l”, even with the rest of the song being dull. Finally, despite often coming off as pretentious, Cole does sound like he has a genuine passion for the art form on many of the tracks here, and that is definitely an infectious thing to hear and adds an authentic quality that improves the record quite a bit.
Much to the listener’s dismay though, the positives end there. The rest of The Off-Season is filled with a lack of self-awareness, a slew of boring production, and lyrical moments that leave the listener pondering how Cole could possibly be placed alongside someone like Kendrick Lamar, much less some of his more exciting Dreamville peers like J.I.D or EARTHGANG. His opposition to flexing money like there is no tomorrow seems to have vanished since the last record, with the track “1 0 0 . m i l ‘ (with Bas)” being nothing but unmitigated flexing. The repetitive, mind numbing chorus of “100 mil and I’m still on the grind” is completely soulless and is poorly backed up by the lackluster instrumental.
There are also quite a few bars across this record that come off as conceited, forced, and just utterly lame. On the opener, Cole raps “Cole been going plat’ since back when CDs was around”, a line that conveys a certain confident demeanor, but comes off as nothing more than cringey when taken into consideration that Cole’s career has really only been going since around 2008. The line paints a false image that Cole is a seasoned veteran of the rap game, when in reality there are many rappers that have been in the industry much longer than he has. There is also a moment on “t h e . c l i m b . b a c k'' where Cole attempts to make a valid statement on gang violence, but essentially minimizes the issues of those with suicidal thoughts and mental health issues. In a monologue at the end of the track, he says “Everybody mentions suicide prevention/Man, they even made a hotline/To call up when there’s tension, but I got a question/What about a fuckin’ homocide?” before suggesting that we implement a hotline for those who struggle with gang violence to call as well. The sentiment is great, and is a genuine suggestion for social change, but the way that Cole expresses it suggests that he is annoyed that those with suicidal thoughts and urges have a form of help.
All in all, The Off-Season is painfully average. The entire record goes in one ear and right out the other. None of the tracks are particularly memorable, save a few standout bars or acceptable storytelling moments from Cole. The rapping is okay, never unbearably bad, but Cole takes himself far too seriously for the amount of quality that is actually being put forth. Finally, it is a bit of a disappointment after the shining moments on KOD that implied an upward trend for Cole, something that made Cole skeptics at least somewhat hopeful that he would improve with the next batch of songs, but instead he takes a miserably mediocre approach to a record that feels as though it had much more potential if some of the ideas were fleshed out a bit more. It isn’t a horrible album, but by no means is it thoroughly enjoyable or even close to Cole’s career high point.