For J. Cole, “living the dream” is a tenuous prospect. Throughout the promotional lead-up to his new project, The Off-Season, the 36-year-old rapper is reflecting on the challenges he felt after attaining rap superstardom.

In a recent SLAM cover story, Cole revealed that he asked himself, “Now what?” after the success of the 2014 Forest Hills Drive album and tour, and ended up feeling “uninspired” when he tried writing rhymes again. 

Ever since he started taking rap seriously, Cole’s rap modus operandi has been achieving his “dream.” Many rappers trumpet self-fulfilling prophecies that serve as the carrot and stick motivating their journey to rap stardom: some call themselves “best rapper alive,” some “King of (insert city/region).” For Cole, he sought the “dream” of rap stardom, which fueled the hunger and craftsmanship he displayed on his pre-2014 output. 

But once he achieved that dream, he didn’t know where to go next. It’s a relatable juncture for most rap superstars who are blessed with the burden of maintaining high sales numbers and Billboard placements. They can’t just put out anything. Cole, a student of rap history, expressed in his Applying Pressure documentary that he was cognizant of this confusing chapter for rap stars.

“A lot of your favorite rappers hit a crossroad where they did what they set out to do and the fruits of their labor started working against them,” he pointed out. “That same passion they put into the craft was gone and was replaced by comfort and luxury.”

Countless rap veterans have released underwhelming projects that are the result of luxury overtaking hunger. Once rappers have quenched their thirst and are on the other side of the mountain, the only thing that keeps them sharp is working that much harder to stay focused. It’s why veteran rappers like Jim Jones typically work with a small suite of producers, and others decide to give themselves a specific theme to write about. They need a North Star to keep themselves motivated in rap when they could just go live on an island somewhere. 

Cole gave himself that focus when he wrote out a five-point plan for “The Fall Off Era” that he shared with the world in December 2020. He knows the troubles that rappers with his amount of experience face, so he planned a rollout of projects (and personal goals) concluding with The Fall Off. He once made it his mission to achieve the dream, and now his goal is to avoid the fall-off by acknowledging its feasibility. This rollout is what he says has kept him from succumbing to a creative decline. We’ll know for sure tonight at 12:00 a.m. with The Off-Season, a project that certainly seems like it could be a penultimate offering. 

He told SLAM, “I’m super comfortable with the potential of being done with this shit. But I’m never going to say, ‘Oh, this is my last album.’” And during the documentary, he spoke about “maxing out” and giving his all to these next couple of projects so he would have no regrets about them if they turn out to be his last. It certainly sounds like he may run into that same “what’s next?” question after The Fall Off, and decide rap isn’t part of the next chapter. It seems apparent that he’d rather not rap at all if he’s not giving it 100 percent. 

We’ve seen rap vets get criticized over and over for albums that lack a creative drive—but they often corrected course when they actually had a creative focus. Jay-Z is criticized for Kingdom Come, The Blueprint 3, and Magna Carta Holy Grail, ostentatious albums where Jay reached a bit too far to craft a posh playlist for the swanky rooms he was entering. But American Gangster (inspired by the movie) and 4:44 (a cathartic project helmed by No I.D.) show Jay at his best. Nas said that Nasir faltered from him and Kanye not actually being in the studio much together. Then he locked in with Hit-Boy on King’s Disease, a well-regarded, well-produced album that his fans love. Snoop Dogg has stayed relevant through the years by being bold enough to try projects like Bush, Reincarnated, and Bible Of Love, where he explored specific sonic aesthetics for each album. The code to aging gracefully in rap has long been cracked: A talented artist will generally come through when they proactively choose an album approach that interests them. But if they’re just recording songs here and there in between other endeavors, the collective results will usually be disappointing—and lead fans to conclude that they’ve “fallen off.”

Cole once made it his mission to achieve the dream, and now his goal is to avoid the fall-off by acknowledging its feasibility.

Cole has already experienced that creative listlessness in the time after Forest Hills Drive dropped. He told SLAM, “Sometimes I would pick up the pen and write at that time. And I didn’t really have any real reason. I had just got off tour, there was no rush to do anything. But if I tried to pick up the pen, if I tried to make a beat, the shit would be uninspired.”

He acknowledged that the lack of inspiration was the result of feeling too much comfort after releasing a project that, for many, asserted him atop the steeple of mainstream rap alongside Kendrick Lamar and Drake. Cole noted, “You’re sitting around the house, You’re going to play ball every day. You’re watching fucking Narcos. And that’s cool, but this is the inevitable result of not pushing yourself.”

There are some artists who would be fine with releasing whatever they had put together in that period, knowing that their devoted fans would still support them, and still come see them on tour. Cole has an especially devoted fan base that would talk themselves into believing anything he released was an Album of the Year contender. But it speaks to how Cole is built that he wants to give nothing less than his absolute best. 

If LeBron James had joined the Lakers and taken a step back as a player simply because of age and attrition, we could understand that. But if he stayed on the court and was only good in spurts, visibly not giving his all simply because of the weight of his résumé, basketball fans would say he didn’t go out like a champion. Cole—an avid basketball fan who is set to be playing with the Rwandan National Basketball League’s Rwanda Patriots starting on Sunday—holds himself to that same standard when it comes to his rap career. 

The Off-Season, which Cole deemed to be about “getting everything out on this craft to where I feel at peace,” and The Fall Off are natural successors to the suite of athletic career-referencing projects he’s released over the years. Father time is undefeated, and no one should be expected to only want to explore one thing forever. But Cole says he’s crafted these projects so that if he does fall back, he’s satisfied with his efforts. As he noted, “If I’m inspired and I feel like doing it again, cool. But if not, I know I left it all on the table.” No one in any craft ever realizes they’ve taken a step back until they get on their figurative floor and it actually happens. In a rap context, you’ll usually hear it from fans and critics’ response to the output. 

Cole is looking to fight off the fall-off with The Off-Season, a mixtape themed around his dedication to the craft. We haven’t heard it yet, but the concept behind it seems like a shrewd, ultra-meta project, with the creative focus being the creative focus. Whether you like it or not, you can be sure that the project is a result of his best efforts, which is what rap fans seek but don’t always get from veteran artists. Cole built a studio in his house and recorded for hours, making sure that whatever time he didn’t spend with family was devoted to his craft. 

With that renewed passion, The Fall Off just may be on his terms. He told SLAM he has no fear of falling off, knowing, “It’s an acceptance of the reality of what will happen when you decide to stop putting in the work. It’s just the inevitable result.” Who knows what the future holds, but if The Off-Season and The Fall Off end up being his last projects, at least it’s something that he prepared us and himself for—and gave his all to. But until we know for sure, we can listen to The Off-Season tonight knowing that it’s the effort of an artist who wants to “leave it all on the floor.”