Album Review: The Off-Season by J. Cole

“Are you doing this work to facilitate growth, or become famous?
Which is more important: Getting, or Letting Go?”

Hip hop has always had a close relationship with the NBA. Whether it’s Drake and Kendrick shooting subs with KD/Westbrook references, Kurtis Blow’s “Basketball” (which was later remixed by Bow Wow), or Post Malone blowing up with his single “White Iverson”, it’s clear that hip hop and basketball have an understanding that exceeds any other professional sport. In my opinion, very few rappers embody this relationship better than J. Cole.

From humble beginnings in Fayetteville, NC to the bright lights of New York City, the former college athlete – turned rapper – turned professional basketball player, has been extremely candid about his plans to walk away from hip hop to focus on his family and basketball career. On the way out, however, he’s resolved to leave us with his best material yet. The Off-Season represents the beginning of J. Cole making good on that promise, and damn, it’s an amazing start! Coming in at 12 tracks, 39 minutes, there doesn’t seem to be a wasted moment on this album. From the intro, 95.south, which features Killa Cam facilitating a lyrical escalation of both content and flow, to hunger.on.hillside where Bas helps Cole bring the project to an inspirational end, Cole’s meticulous approach to the lyrical and conceptual execution of this project bleeds through every track.

The very first thing that sticks out on The Off-Season is Cole’s delivery. Cole sounds HUNGRY, which isn’t something we can usually say about a rapper after a decade of experience in the industry. Every song sees Cole mash the gas on a lyrical assault aimed at any and everyone in the way. Even the interlude (aptly titled interlude) isn’t a breather for the audience. In 2 minutes and 13 seconds, Cole paints a mosaic juxtaposing war and peace, biblical teachings of non-violence versus the sobering reality of cyclical vengeance, and the pain of growing up in all of this chaos measured against the success gained from telling stories rooted in that pain. On a soulful Tommy Parker sample that culminates in a Venn diagram which compares Pimp C, Nipsey Hussle, and Jesus of Nazareth, Cole’s thesis statement rings clear: “This shit can go up, it can go down. Either way, nigga, I’m prepared.”

The second thing that stands out is Cole’s penmanship. Don’t get me wrong, Cole has always been an elite lyricist, but somehow he found another gear with this project. More to the point, this project sees him masterfully balance the more recent heights of his career’s success with the grounded, candid talk for which he’s known. With bars like “Trash rappers, ass-backward, tryna go toe-to-toe/ We laugh at ya, staff strapped up on top the totem pole to blast at ya/ Bassmasters, look how they tote a pole/ Gotta know the ropes and the protocol/ Or they gon’ for sure blow your clothes half off like a promo codeā€¦” it’s clear that J. Cole wasn’t playing games with anyone. In five bars, six if you count the leadup, he’s able to son the people who’ve taken shots at him, establish his place in hip hop’s hierarchy, shout out a fishing organization/video game series, and relate all of these things to stick talk and online deals. Just, wow.

“I told you, when I first came here; I said, “I ain’t come here to waste my time;” I came here, they gave us a chance to get in like we asked for and that’s what we here to do. The job still ain’t done. Straight up. But I said, “You, you know what I’m here for”

In my personal circles, I’ve expressed the idea that this may be the album of the year – and we’re only in May. Officially, I think J. Cole has set the bar for this year’s rap albums. And with artists like Mach-Hommy and Isaiah Rashad slated to drop soon, I’m excited to hear what’s next! In a year where the wounds of Kobe’s passing have reopened due to his Basketball Hall of Fame induction, I can’t help but draw some light comparisons between the two artists. Both of these men dedicated themselves wholly to their respective arts. Both of them rose to the highest heights of their respective crafts on two separate occasions. And as Cole plans to draw his rap career to a close, this album gives me the same feeling as Kobe’s 81-point game against the Raptors. They both continued to push themselves to incredible feats of skill at a time when everyone would expect them to coast on an already stellar career.

I think anyone who loves this art can respect the time it took to craft such a precise project. It’s been nearly a week, and I still find myself being genuinely impressed by how rarely my ears go into autopilot while this album is on. From start to finish, I can’t find a single track Cole should’ve cut or think of a track Cole could’ve added to help bolster this project a bit. From the lyrical content to the beat arrangements and sequencing, Cole hit a home run with this project! As fans eagerly await the conclusion of Cole’s rap career, they can rest assured: “The Fall Off-Era” will be one for the record books.

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