J. Cole’s Workout Plan Paid Off on 'The Off-Season': Album Review

On 'The Off-Season,' J. Cole goes bar for bar, not plaque for plaque, approaching the craft as the accomplishment. Here's our review of his new album.

J. Cole

Image via YouTube/Dreamville

J. Cole

Cole’s new album, The Off-Season, is dedicated to form. The performance of rapping is athletic by nature, and Cole obsesses over the fundamentals on his sixth studio project, zeroing in on punchlines, similes, metaphors, storytelling, and multi-syllable flow patterns.

Think of The Off-Season as a workout session. For Cole, each song represents a collection of drills. They’re rap exercises. There’s no real attempts at making catchy records with memorable hooks. Sure, “100 Milli” and “Amari” have single potential, but they weren’t made to be the next “No Role Modelz” or “Middle Child.” At 36 years old, a father of two, and prizewinner of every rap accomplishment worth achieving, the focus here is technique. He goes bar for bar, not plaque for plaque, approaching the craft as the accomplishment.

A mixtape is often the medium for this brand of proficient, non-commercial rap songs. Any major label would have shelved this album in the early 2010s, or released it for free much like Roc Nation and Dreamville did with 2011 mixtape Friday Night Lights. But in the streaming era, we get The Off-Season.

“95 South” sets the tone. It’s Herculean in sound, projecting invincibility, with a hook-less attack from the Carolina rapper. His earnest lyricism ebbs and flows through the song, establishing that for Cole, how this isn’t just an album, it’s a mentality. “It represents the practice, the training, the drills, the intensity, the craft. It represents pushing yourself,” he shared with SLAM magazine before the album’s release.  

He goes bar for bar, not plaque for plaque, approaching the craft as the accomplishment.

Comparing rap to basketball is a major theme in both the SLAM cover story and the Applying Pressure: The Off-Season documentary. He talks at length about how this album, much like the current period of his career he just entered, dubbed The Fall Off Era, is based on the challenge of exerting himself as a competitor. He’s competing against the comfort of success. What Cole discovered through the years is how multi-platinum, GRAMMY-winning success can be a trap once it relieves the symptoms that inspired one to chase glory in the first place. 

On The Off-Season, Cole is selfish in ways that an artist like Drake isn’t. When Drake makes an album, he wants to please every sector of his fanbase. He sings for the R&B lovers, he raps for the hip hop heads, he makes hits for the radio and playlist consumers, and so on and so forth. But not Cole. He did not care to please the audience here. This album is more about him than any listener, as he goes against the playlist-focused, variety pack LPs that force rappers to be everything to everyone.  

Cole grew up lower middle class, watching rap from afar in Fayetteville, North Carolina. He was in the seventh grade when P. Diddy’s classic debut, No Way Out, was released in 1997. And as a fan, the fantasy of rap enamored him. Enticed by the culture and the commerce, but also the skill, he rapped as a teen. A SoundCloud page with songs from when his name was The Therapist reveals how Eminem and East Coast hip-hop at the turn of the millennium deeply influenced a kid down south coming of age in the 2000s. 

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His proximity to rap as a spectator, moving to New York City in hopes of getting a record deal with Jay-Z, then finding out what was behind the fantasy once the dream came true is why songs like “False Prophets” are essential to understanding J. Cole’s current career arc. The last verse, where he raps, “I hear my old shit and know I can top it” is what he’s out to prove in The Fall Off Era.

During The Black Album press run, Jay-Z confessed to The New York Timesthat his withdrawal from the limelight was a byproduct of boredom. He was two years and two albums removed from his beef with Nas, a battle he intentionally pushed to its boiling point. “I had to go picking fights to get that excitement,” he admitted, an honest confession about rap and how the artists have to push themselves.

Rap is a jungle of hunters, and only by hunting can competitors keep their edge. Going blow for blow with Nas was necessary for Jay because there was no risk, no danger, no stakes without him. Looking back on both The Blueprint and The Blueprint 2, lyrically, war is on his mind. The music exerts a sense of conquest, domination, and stardom—he’s embodying a rap titan who is No. 1 on beats and Billboard, no discussion.  

The hunt for Cole, though, is the rapper in the mirror. No adversary was pushing him to new heights while he made The Off-Season, but the entire project embodies a ruler’s disposition—a rap giant who isn’t timid about his status, his money, his self-belief. That’s what I hear on The Off-Season: a rapper who is pushing himself to exude the rap star he’s spent several albums shying away from. 

“What you sold, I tripled that, I can’t believe these fuckin’ clowns, look how everybody clappin’ when your thirty-song album do a measly hundred thou,’” is the boastfulness he unloads throughout the album. It’s not entirely unlike him—there’s always been a braggadocio to Cole’s raps—but here, they’re completely stripped of the humbleness of songs like “Love Yourz,” which successfully centered him as rap’s everyman. The Off-Season is more about separation than togetherness.  

“I’m on that Mount Rushmore, you niggas can’t front no more, bitch, I’ma reign until FEMA show up,” might be one of the boldest statements of his career, not just the album. It calls to mind when Lil Wayne started his Best Rapper Alive campaign. Another moment of brashness that’s ranted, not rapped, appears at the end of “Applying Pressure.” “Sometimes you gotta come through and just do it at the level that you do it in front of every nigga face, So they know the difference between you, the real niggas, and the mothafuckin’ fraudulent niggas,” he says brazenly, as if rap is a black top and his performance was a dunk over a seven-foot giant with LeBron arms but an achilles heel. 

Even if it must be self-congratulatory, J. Cole is all about triumph. You can hear the conquest in his voice on “100 Mil,” “Amari,” “The Climb Back,” and “Hunger on Hillside.” He moves across these boom bap-esque trap beats with boastful confidence. His raps used to be youthful, naive, self-conscious, and excited. Now they’re like a rich father—older, bolder, and less concerned with acceptance. 

Like with any good father, lyrics tow the line between clever and corny, where the bars fall each listener will have to decide for themselves. Tom Breihan wrote that “lecture mode” is what Cole stays in. A fair critique. I find him to be a proud elder statesman who isn’t shy to say how he feels. Much like a Dave Chappelle, they both share a classicist mentality. True to the traditional standards of their craft. 

Tradition can become a crutch, though, holding you back from living in the present. Some reviews of Born Sinner reprimanded Cole for playing too near his idols. But now he is the idol, a rap star revered for moving through the game, while staying true to his own brand of hip-hop. 

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Cole uses The Off-Season to establish what he perceives to be the skill set that makes a great emcee, reintroducing himself as a rapper’s rapper. It’s an older school perspective. Most of the songs have a ‘90s, early 2000s throwback dust on them. Newcomer Morray’s soul-lifting chorus on “My Life” is an interpolation of a Pharoahe Monch hook from 2002. Cam’ron and Lil Jon, two superstars of hip hop’s early 2000s, provide their presence on the intro, and several lyrics refer to the rap of today and yesteryears.

“Back and forth from NC to New York when Jeezy had the crown,” he raps on the “95 South.” “My latest speeches sound like they was released by David East,” appears on “Amari” and “Shit crazy, didn’t know I got more M’s than a real Slim Shady video,” is a highlight from “Punchin the Clock.”

“Applying Pressure” has the dusty mildew of a Bed-Stuy basement that would feel even more like a ’90s cut with a Method Man or Raekwon verse. You get the feeling an artist like Freddie Gibbs or Benny The Butcher would have been a great contributor on an album where the mission is a revival of rap as a craft and not commerce. Yes, Lil Baby and 21 Savage both showed up and once again proved their legitimacy as show-stealing rappers, worthy to do it on this album, but it’s not the same bar for bar clash of the titans that would make The Off-Season a great rap epic. What’s missing in Cole’s colosseum are the sounds of swords colliding. There’s all this craft with none of the riskiness that was pushing Jay-Z during The Blueprint to one up Nas and all the other rappers who only got “half a bar” on “Takeover.” 

Since the majority of the album is focused on performance, there are times where the rapping gets superfluous. All the surprises are big, but it misses the subtle textures that could make the fundamentals unpredictable. Some of that falls on the beats remaining unchanged throughout a mostly breathless album. He goes on and on, rarely uninterrupted, a bullet that doesn’t bend once it’s selected a target. On “Pride is the Devil,” he knows the destination but takes the longest route to reach it. “The Climb Back” lays bar upon bar but it starts to feel like too many thoughts wedged together without revealing the aim by the end. 

A breadth of additional voices, à la My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, would’ve allowed Cole to work less, while retaining that competitive edge. To its credit, as the prelude to The Fall Off,The Off-Season does move with a purpose, one that feels like it’s meant to build momentum and not necessarily reach a career climax. Which is why, at times, Cole sounds like a painter with leftover colors from a large portrait, and these songs are the micro-portraits made from the overflow. Nothing here seems intended to shake the globe, just a well-rounded batch of rap songs to hold the listener over. 

Now that he’s played this first card, the bar is set for the music to come. If you look back on where Cole was leading up to his Roc Nation debut in 2011, conceptually, his mentality was all about getting off the sideline. This led to radio-leaning records like “Work Out,” a blemish for a rap purist, but it got him a release date and his first hit record. Now he’s possibly preparing to go back to the sideline, without anyone else having say on how it must be done. 

As a concept, retirement gave Jay-Z an incentive to raise the stakes when he felt deprived of competition. How to leave the game, rather than how to stay, became the challenge. Retirement never lasts in rap, so it doesn’t have to be forever, but you can’t walk the path of Jay and Kobe without playing that last game, taking that final shot, saying goodbye, and allowing the audience to wonder if you’ll ever return. The Off-Season sets Cole up to create the conversation about his place in rap history, and he’ll need to deliver a blockbuster finale to fulfill the premonition he made 11 years ago on “Last Call:” 

“Time for a Carolina nigga to take his place with the greats.” 

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