off season j. cole

The Off Season by J. Cole – Review

Since 2011’s Cole World: The Sideline Story, every J. Cole album has been completely obsessed with being the one that earns him his place on the podium next to his idols BiggieJay, and Nas. It was like he read a copy of How to Make a Classic Rap Album for Dummies and has been trying to replicate it ever since. It never quite happened, but it had nothing to do with his skill. He’s a clever lyricist who can make lines stick for both good and bad reasons, the type of a storyteller who could get you to pull up a chair and listen, and his beats may sound familiar but they have this warmth to them that can produce the rare Billboard hit that feels intimate.

It’s just that he’s so deadly serious that he can make rap sound like studying for the SATs. In a recent interview with Slam, he opened up about how he was once so tormented by aspirations to make long-lasting music that he wouldn’t even allow himself to complete watching a full season of television. Imagine not letting yourself binge-watch Bob’s Burgers or whatever because you’re too busy trying to make the next The Blueprint! Sounds terrible! Well, finally he’s come to the realization he needs to chill out. Refreshingly, his latest album The Off-Season isn’t so damn uptight.

The Off-Season is a much-needed break from the heavy-handed preachiness that made KOD and 4 Your Eyez Only such slogs to get through. He pulls back slightly from the narrative form of writing (sorry, to the “Wet Dreamz” heads but no virginity tales on this one) in favor of more punchlines and wordplay. This switch doesn’t suddenly turn him into a Flint rapper, but it does sound like he’s having fun for once.

That liveliness comes out on the album’s collaborations. On “My Life,” Fayetteville crooner Morray’s hook repurposes Pharoahe Monch lyrics through vocals that sound like he’s leading a church choir, 21 Savage’s guest appearance is filled with the warmest death threats, and the smoky beat is done by Cole with help from Jake One and Wu10. This gives him the freedom to pour most of his energy into his verse, which catches a nice balance between the sort of shallow but earnest introspection he’s known for and more trivial things that just sound cool: “Wanna be in the spot like where every bitch want me like Rihanna droppin’ new Fenty,” he raps. The same could be said for “Pride Is the Devil,” where, annoying-Cole-singing aside, his thoughtfulness is complemented by Lil Baby being much less thoughtful: “Got my feet up, I paid silly bands to have sex on the jet.”

But you can still subtly feel that weight on Cole’s shoulders. “Applying Pressure” feels tense, made worse by a lifeless self-produced boom-bap instrumental that sounds like the background music for a ’90s UPN sitcom and some bars that have become expected of the out of touch rap elite: “If you broke and clownin’ a millionaire, the joke is on you.” (Nas, would approve of this one.) Some choices feel incredibly forced as well. Most notably the intro where he squeezes some cliché flexing in between a half-assed Cam’ron monologue and the jarring tonal shift into Lil Jon chants. Likewise “Let Go My Hand” would probably fall similarly flat if it wasn’t so funny. In what is supposed to be a sincere moment, he reveals that he once got into a scuffle with Diddy and in the very same song, Diddy shows up to speak some sort of fake enlightened prayer. None of this works, because no one cares about this beef, especially Diddy, who instead uses his studio time to promote his rebrand into Tony Robbins.

In the build-up to this album, Cole put out a mini-documentary that asks the question: Why is it so hard to be great in rap as you get older? Cole, now 36, believes that he’s solved it, though his answer is actually meaningless motivational speak about hunger and putting in the work and other sayings that belong on a Nike T-shirt. But actually getting older in rap is difficult because life is not the same. Many hugely successful rappers have struggled through this phase, not because they became worse lyricists, but they were clinging to the old days instead of reflecting this change. It happened to Jay on The Blueprint 3, Nas back during his “Hip Hop is Dead” era, and Kanye sometime before or after The Life of Pablo. Lots of finger-wagging and résumé raps about their accomplishments and outside endeavors. By taking a step back on The Off-Season, Cole mostly avoids that, even if he still doesn’t have a spot in those conversations he dreams of.

J. Cole has also released a new music video for “Amari,” a track from the new album, The Off-Season.

Directed by Mez, the clip finds J. Cole performing “Amari” in a variety of different spaces, some of which recall classic hip-hop videos while others boast a more abstract and surreal flare. There are scenes in which J. Cole uses a remote control to fly a helicopter — emblazoned with the logo of his label Dreamville — around New York City, while elsewhere he sports a very dapper suit, stands in front of a raging fire, and even returns to a mock-up of his old college dorm, the wall now covered in gold and platinum records.

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