This album broke my Spotify. It has set it on fire.
Once viewed as an understudy to talents like Kendrick and Drake, J. Cole came in hot to the hip-hop spotlight with killer album 2014 Forest Hills Drive, where he abandoned his usual style and turned to an authentic, self-produced way of rap that organically threw him at a fiery pace to the top of the charts. He didn’t look back.
It’s been three long, dry years since we’ve had the GOAT Jermaine Cole release an album.
The Off-Season will be this King’s sixth studio album, which launched Friday 14 May.
It’s apparent this album could be his second-to-last work to ever be released. Back in December, the North Carolina rapper posted an Instagram pic displaying a diagram that looked to resemble the last few events of his music career. The Fall Off was labelled at the bottom of the drawing, with two album names above that, It’s A Boy, and The Off-Season, posted with the caption “I still got some goals I gotta check off for’ I scram…”
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With that said, here are the top 5 highlights of what might just be one of the most famous albums of J. Cole’s entire music career.
Introducing, The Off-Season.
1. A Colossally Powerful Cover
The album cover has Cole just chilling in the nighttime, hands in pockets, with an airy basketball hoop lit on fire behind him. Smoke billows out over the court. J-Cole looks powerful; unscathed by the burning flames; ready to spit his genius craft for 40 minutes on the record.
Looking at the cover, I can hear the his own words circulating in my head: “It took years to reach this form”
Took years to reach this form.
The Off-Season. My new album.
Available now. https://t.co/sgVCaa62hU
— J. Cole (@JColeNC) May 14, 2021
The theme of the album is further explained in his accompanying documentary ‘Applying Pressure: The Off-Season’ which was released a week prior to the album. “I had just graduated college. I was broke. I was struggling to pay my rent. I ain’t have no job. And I was kinda being complacent because I had crazy music and I was kinda chillin, like as if that was good enough to get me to where I needed to go.” says Cole.
Then his friends approached him at a party, turning the chat into a type of intervention.
“So, it was like, yo, do you really want to look back 10 or 20 years from now with this music shit and be like, the reason you didn’t make it in music is because you didn’t put in the work?’”
From there, Cole created drills for himself. Writing versus every morning, practicing his craft every single day, to reach the height of heights and push himself. That’s why it’s called the Off Season. Just like basketball, you got to put in the work in the summer months too. The “off-season” is where the ugly progress happens. He calls it a “fight against comfort” which is alarmingly true. Nothing great happens in the house of the mediocre.
2. The Intro Track You Never Prepared For
The album starts off with ‘95. s o u t h’. Apologies to everyone who was looking to warm up their precious ear drums before diving into the work. This track allows no such gentle awakening of the spirit, it comes at you with flames tailing the beat. J. Cole rolls in cocky lines, with enough blow to take out a football field worth of critics. “Look how everybody clappin’ when your thirty-song album do a measly hundred thou”. Finally, we get some fly talk from this artist, no more humble banter.
This tune will no doubt have college kids going off in their dorm rooms, dripping from house party walls for years. The Gruff introduction from rapper Cam’ron leads into the first powerful execution from J.Cole – the sonically caged pit-bull – and what a way to start the album. It’ll definitely be one to see live. On that note, he better be touring this project.
3. A J. Cole First: Guest Features
As we all know, J.Cole has received a lot of media attention for his tendency to exclude guests on his albums. The rapper has famously gone ‘platinum with no features’, which became a circulating meme. When Cole first heard this phrase, he was like, “Word up—this is funny as hell.” But the second or third time, he was like, “All right, it’s almost embarrassing now. Like, ‘All right, man, y’all gonna make me put a feature on the album just so this s- can stop.’”
Well, check it. The Off-Season’s now got Cam’ron, 21 Savage, Lil Baby, Morray, Bas and 6lack riding with him on the album. The features tease your interest levels, as you wait to be surprised by the intro of each guest artist, their own distinct style seeping through the usual rough flow of Cole.
4. Lyrics That Reach Astronomical Heights
Within the walls of the album, you’ve got lyrics that could cut through glass with utter precision. This work really shows off how far Cole has come with his writing; you can literally hear the pain and the hard work of his pen in the verses of these tunes. From a technical standpoint, this is definitely J.Cole’s sharpest release. Here’s a couple of killer punchlines that linger long after physically playing:
“I pray that my past ain’t ahead of me” -‘ m y. l i f e’ (with 21 Savage & Morray). What a powerful line that is inevitably true for so many street kids in America. Despite J.Cole’s current fame and income, his upbringing was not all Porsche’s and celebrity treasures. He tips to the community around him struggling heavily with narcotics and facing an array of life’s unfortunate demons.
”Got uncles and some aunties that’s too proud to give apologies/ Slowly realizing what the root of all my problems be/ It got me feeling different when somebody say they proud of me.”
– ‘p r i d e. i s. t h e. d e v i l.’ (with Lil Baby). Boy do these lyrics kick the boundaries of artist humility. J. Cole opens up about his struggle with pride and we get an insight to how hard it is to stay soft and vulnerable in an industry that demands a continuous bullet-proof facade from the critics. I love how raw he is with us in these versus, he’s allowing himself to be human.
5. First Class Production
It was a real treat that J.Cole allowed others to help produce this album as he produced his previous album, KOD, almost entirely by himself. This share-of-work allowed him to spend more time focusing his talent on his writing and delivery, although I’m not sold he stayed at arms-length during the entire journey. Cole loves to tap into every aspect of a record he releases, a multi-talented musician in every right.
His production roster, led by Timbaland, Boi-1da, Frank Dukes, T-Minus, and Jake One was one impressive line-up, allowing the whole masterpiece to remain heavily consistent with its quality.
To wrap up the review, J. Cole is just out here proving his legacy with another ridiculously stunning body of work, with songs that will burn through our headphones for decades following the retirement of one of the greats. This is comfortably among one of the best albums of 2021. Do yourself a favour, go listen!