J. Cole’s highly anticipated return is notable for various reasons. Hip-hop, arguably, has morphed into something far less wordy than his appearance in 2007. Albums with concise theme through-lines are also far less common than they were ten years ago. Emcees aren’t expected to stick around beyond the initial hit and mixtape, let alone long enough to multiple concept albums. His lyrical allusions to basketball have also materialized in real life too, adding a surreal quality to themes of his work in hindsight. Remove those elements and backstory and The Off-Season is still a special contribution to the current state of rap. While there are some familiar themes at play- the burning basketball hoop is too iconic to leave unmentioned, the songwriting is steadily locked in the moment- celebrating life while simultaneously questioning it.
The earnest approach may leave some underwhelmed, sonically things aren’t as triumphant as Born Sinner, and no, Dreamville wasn’t invited either. However, Cole continues to show us the benefits of approaching ideas with a singular voice. This consistently refined point of view, alongside some of Cole’s sharpest writing yet, results in a piece of work essential for thirsty listeners. On “95 South”, it’s pretty fantastic hearing Cole link ‘Luigi brother now’ to, “So many shells left on the ground, make the Easter Bunny proud.” The Cam’ron cameo at the head of the song is also a nice vocal treat to set the tone. The Lil’ Jon flip at the end is a little clunky, however most tracks manage to stick their landings much better. “Punchin’ the Clock” is airtight storytelling, a track where Cole narrates the guilt adjacent to aimlessly living in poverty. During “Pride is the Devil feat. Lil Baby”, Cole presents his grim achievements bluntly, “Bright lights pass me in the city it’s emergency, I’m thankful ‘cause I made it out my 30’s no one murdered me.” These crossroads aren’t anything new in hip-hop, it’s just curious how this once green emcee digests this vulnerable space further into his career. It’s also even more impactful considering how much Hip-hop has lost in the past year. For Cole, and many black men in America, 36 is a noteworthy, seldom seen checkpoint.
Cole hasn’t quite reached post-2010’s Jay Z levels of Capitalist preaching, but “100 Mil” certainly inches in that direction. The grind is admirable but even our headiest rapper would rather join the rich than eat them. The murky themes on this cut are a small hiccup in an otherwise flawless seven-track run. I’d even place this track in the top 3 of the record, simply on energy and performance alone. Cole feels hoarse and exhausted with this grind, spouting out the hook with strained gasps of breath. The pulse of the record is unwavering in the opening passages and comes back full force in the final three songs. All puns aside, “The Come Back” is dreamlike with its sinister progression. The twinkles and kicks pulsate beneath Cole as he rattles between outwardly contemplative and introspective mind states. There’s a moment on this track where Cole likens some choice criticism to self-hate, “I’m sendin’ a warnin’, a problem with me is like the BET Hip-Hop Awards, I’m startin’ to see you niggas don’t want it.” This is one of many astute observations from a brilliant emcee finally reaching his full potential. The Off-Season may not be a grand gesture, but it’s a thoroughly rehearsed and calculated one.