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Album Review: ‘The Off-Season’ by J. Cole

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J. Cole is at a pivotal point in his legacy.

Since 2018’s underwhelming “KOD” release, J. Cole’s rapping has been at its all-time peak. His 2018 and 2019 feature run will go down as one of the high points of his career, and he’s made remarkable contributions to various artists’ songs, including on 21 Savage’s “A Lot” and on his Dreamville label’s album “Revenge Of The Dreamers III.” Cole released two of the best features of his entire career on “Under the Sun” and “Sacrifices.” 

But many people — myself included — feel like he doesn’t quite yet have an incredible solo album in his discography, and it’s holding him back from being considered one of the greats in hip-hop. Even as a big Cole fan myself, I feel that his studio albums typically don’t live up to the standards he sets on mixtapes and features, where most of his best work has come by way of loose tracks, mixtapes, EPs and collaborations.

“The Off-Season” gives Cole a chance to reform his studio album reputation, and to cement his legacy as an all time great in rap music. Thankfully, Cole is continuing to rap at the high level he has consistently held over the last three years. Despite some small structural flaws, “The Off-Season” is a more than satisfactory effort, and it provides some of the greatest music of his career.

Here are my track-by-track reactions and overall initial impressions of “The Off-Season.”

J. Cole: “The Off-Season (May 14, 2021)

  1. “9 5 . s o u t h” 

Cam’ron on the intro? That’s a great start to the album. The triumphant production lays the foundation for Cole to take a lyrical victory lap, reflecting on past successes and obstacles overcome. “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.” A handful of clever one-liners and an impassioned delivery help the intro properly fit its purpose. “9 5 . s o u t h” really establishes a 2000s-era-mixtape feel with the Cam’ron feature, the Lil Jon outro and the heavy triumphant synth production. The energy steadily escalates throughout the track, and by the end, the lively atmosphere built up for the rest of the album is immense.

  1. “a m a r i”

The second track takes a pretty generic trap beat and an unoriginal melodic flow. Unfortunately, this one will probably draw more streams than any other song on the tracklist, but it is certainly one of the worst songs on the album, if not the worst. The chorus is fairly catchy but far from captivating, and the lone verse is satisfactory but nothing special. The fluctuations in intonation are somewhat refreshing, and some of the lines are pretty solid, but other than that, this one is not the quality I hoped for.

  1. “m y . l i f e” ft. 21 Savage & Morray

With a fantastic soul sample and a 21 Savage feature, this track is sensational. The mixing on Cole’s vocals gives a really raw and authentic feel, and the tremendous energy from the verse makes the beginning massively captivating. “Ja Morant, I’m on my Grizzly / You n***** just cubs but no, not the ones in the big leagues /After The Fall Off, I promise I’m comin’ to sellin’ out Wrigley’s.” Morray comes in with a deeply soulful chorus, and then 21 comes in with a terrific feature that fits the track perfectly. The growth of 21 into arguably the top trap artist right now is spectacular and one that I have loved to watch. Who would have thought that this duo would be this exceptional together?

  1. “a p p l y i n g . p r e s s u r e”

Old-school-influenced boom-bap production with heavy percussion and a modern twist gives this one a great bounce and gives Cole’s lone verse the center stage. A second verse could have contributed greatly, but instead we get an overextended outro. With that being said, the song was still solid overall.

  1. “p u n c h i n ‘ . t h e . c l o c k”

Definitely Cole’s best verse at this point in the album, the fifth track is an incredible addition that I wish was way longer. At under two minutes total, and only about one minute of actual Cole rapping, this track still packs a vivid and intricate narrative about his experiences with gun violence and the anxiety that it caused for him. The writing is elite and the wordplay and delivery throughout are phenomenal. I feel that a second and maybe even third verse could have made this  easily one of Cole’s best songs ever. Regardless, this one is peak vivid storytelling from J. Cole. 

  1. “1 0 0 . m i l ‘” ft. Bas

Another grandiose production choice with a smoothly incorporated soul sample (why is there a whistle sample though??), “1 0 0 . m i l” provides a joyous track of lighthearted boasting. For some reason, the one-verse song structure is used again, and I really wish that this wasn’t a trend. Anyways, nothing groundbreaking, but an enjoyable track and a feel-good energy.

  1. “p r i d e . i s . t h e . d e v i l” ft. Lil Baby

Using the same sample from “Can’t Decide” by Aminé is an interesting choice. As much as I liked “Limbo,” I never found this beat/sample compelling, and it’s kind of distracting given how recent that use of it is in my mind. At least Cole gives a somewhat decent verse on it. This song feels heavier on cliché than it does on meaningful content, unfortunately. Some people love to praise Lil Baby’s current feature run, but frankly I find that his contributions are static and hardly present anything unique. Not only does he provide his same standard flow and generic content, but on a song called “p r i d e . i s . t h e . d e v i l” he spends his verse bragging about his income, having sex on a jet, sports cars and having five homes. The juxtaposition of the content from Cole and Lil Baby is absurd to the point that it is comedic and genuinely makes this song pretty ridiculous. 

  1. “l e t . g o . m y . h a n d” ft. Bas & 6lack

Going back to a much darker atmosphere and theme, Cole goes over the smooth instrumental with great narrative. Reflecting on the growth and aging of his child, Cole thinks back to his habits and attitudes growing up and the effect that they had on him. The verse particularly narrows in on the impact that fighting and maintaining a “tough” persona has had on himself, even confirming a long-rumored fight with Diddy. Again, there is an overextended outro and I feel left wanting much more from Cole on the song. However, the relaxed instrumental and a noteworthy verse still make this one enjoyable.

  1. “i n t e r l u d e”

Released one week prior to the full album release, the interlude is an impressive contribution, especially for being an interlude. The chopped sample is interesting, and the verse from Cole is quality. Not too much going on here, but a nice fit nevertheless.

  1. “t h e . c l i m b . b a c k”

Originally released in the two-song “Lewis Street” EP and marketed as a lead single for “The Fall Off,” I have been able to listen to this song for nearly a year now. This is certainly the case where a song is even stronger in the context of an album, which says a lot, because it was already a fantastic single on its own. The two verses are relentless, heavy in clever punchlines and bars and invigorated by a tenacity in delivery that is hard to match. 

  1. “c l o s e”

Few songs instantly become one of the best in an artist’s catalog, but that is the case here. The beautiful soul sample is met by arguably the best verse on the album, and one of the best verses of Cole’s entire career. The production is fantastic and is exactly the kind of foundation that you would want for an impassioned narrative. The rhyme scheme of the verse is immaculate, and not a single bar or word feels misplaced or wasted. The flow is effortless, and the delivery has such a pain and authenticity to it. Not to mention the storytelling and content, which are probably the most important aspects. Overall, it is hard to find any aspect of this song that is less than spectacular.

  1. “h u n g e r . o n . h i l l s i d e” 

Everything on the outro feels directly from the heart. The production is magnificent, giving the perfect sonic complement to Cole and Bas’ sincere deliveries. Bas really does a good job in his vocal contributions to the album, again providing a powerful outro: “All the pain makes you worth weight in gold.” Cole finishes a lyrically formidable album with a pair of fitting verses, and everything comes together to close the album out on a very appropriate note.

Overall, “The Off-Season” is some of Cole’s best work. Simply put, he is at the peak of his rapping ability from front to back. The variety of styles and production choices gives the project a refreshing sound that never drags at any point in the listen. 

Still, it feels more like a mixtape than a polished studio album, for better or worse. The raw aspects of the album certainly add authenticity and an energetic feel, but there are parts that I wish were more refined. Although the album structure was nicely assembled, the structuring within many songs themselves could have been improved. In multiple instances, Cole would come with an amazing first verse, but the song would either abruptly end (like on “punchin’ the clock”) or see its outro unnecessarily extended over multiple minutes (ex. “let.go.my.hand”). 

Despite these criticisms, “The Off Season” is still a highly noteworthy and impressive project containing some of Cole’s finest music. J. Cole and the Dreamville camp are implying that Cole’s primary focus is creating his magnum opus, “The Fall-Off,” which he plans to be his final album of his career. Because of that, “The Off-Season” serves as more of an appetizer in his discography, but a marvelous appetizer at that. 

Favorite Songs: “c l o s e,” “m y . l i f e,” “h u n g e r . o n . h i l l s i d e,” “p u n c h i n’ . t h e . c l o c k,” “t h e . c l i m b . b a c k”

Album Score: 85/100

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Nick Sligh is a Junior from Athens, Georgia, studying Economics and International Relations. Nick is always open to discuss anything relating to music, NBA basketball, and movies/TV. As somebody with a deep interest in hip-hop/rap and r&b music, Nick covers these genres through his articles. Feel free to contact him at nsligh 'at' stanforddaily.com