J. Cole – The Off-Season

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J. Cole – The Off-Season

★★★☆

Released May 14th, 2021 on Roc Nation Records

Cole was on an upward trajectory right from his 2011 debut (he went to #1 right from the start, after all) but 2014’s 2014 Forest Hills Drive made him an actual no-fooling global sensation. It’s one of those albums that’s still a constant presence in the Billboard 200 several years after its release. The follow-up fell off, although this is misleading; it still went to #1 and platinum sales status, it just sold three hundred thousand less. KOD got him back on track, outselling everything else in his discography. Both get pretty heavy, though; there is a self-seriousness to both of the albums that was always present on his first three records but had always previously been tempered by solid punchlines and a certain cocksure swagger that sold the more socially conscious lyrics. KOD is particularly moralistic, sometimes tiresomely so; this despite it offering my favourite Cole track in “Brackets.” So at first glance, it’s good to see that swagger making a comeback on The Off-Season. In a sense it sounds like Cole’s having fun again.

What does that mean in conjunction with his hinted-at wrap-up of his rap career? His Instagram has referred to his “Fall Off Era” and the follow-up to The Off-Season is supposedly called The Fall Off (as in the final song on KOD). Is he having fun because the burdens of being a globe-trotting superstar are lifted from his shoulders? He’s closing in on 40, after all, an age where life changes happen as a natural matter of course. He’s already made gestures toward other occupations, too. He dropped the news that he would be playing for the Rwanda Patriots in the Basketball Africa League a few days ago, and played his first game for them this weekend. It’s hard to tell if it’s a career trajectory change or just a marketing stunt; if the latter, it’s one of the wilder ones in recent hip hop history.

The album also shows that he can also make magic with features. The cliche about Cole is that he went platinum with no features; KOD featured exactly one other MC (kiLL edward). Right from the start, The Off-Season shows Cole letting other people in on it. The first voice on the record isn’t Cole but senior Diplomat and purple enthusiast Cam’ron. Elsewhere Cole brings in some big contemporary names to guest, including Lil’ Baby and 6LACK. 21 Savage is on it too but he still isn’t rapping in a British accent so I’m still sleeping on him. The inclusion of more features makes the record feel fresher than KOD but it’s interesting that he didn’t bring in anyone who stood a chance of outshining him. Cole is in the running for best contemporary rapper but sometimes his featureless record-making style functions as a protective layer to keep us from wondering otherwise. I mean, ten years on Roc Nation and a pile of sold records and you can’t get Jay-Z to stop by? For that matter, noname tore him apart not long ago and there’s dead silence on the matter here. In fact, he slips in the line “if you broke and clownin’ a millionaire, the joke is on you,” into “a p p l y i n g . p r e s s u r e.” Cole has been accused of basically doing socially conscious rap for clout, and it’s stuff like this that puts actual meat onto those bones. On the other hand, “l e t . g o . m y . h a n d” features a closing prayer by Diddy and Cole expresses bemused wonder at beefing with a man whose records he wore out in the seventh grade; he clearly sees the problems with the way the game is typically played and wants to do things differently. How differently, though? As always with Cole, the answers aren’t really forthcoming.

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