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J. Cole’s “The Off-Season”: A Review

     The problem with an extended absence between album releases is it gives people time to create a vision in their minds for what your next album should be. As the time ticks faster, expectations get higher. Coming off a run of ’18 features, a Dreamville collaborative album and a one-off single, “Middle Child”; Cole set this album up for a huge return on investment.  So the question remains: did he deliver on those expectations?  Below, we’ll go through each track of “The Off-Season” and offer a review and general consensus. To help me out with this, I’m bringing along fellow NLJ staff writer and music enthusiast, Rami Marinoff. 

What were your initial thoughts Rami?

In all honesty, I never have been and most likely never will be the most enthusiastic J. Cole listener. While I appreciate much of his solo catalog, I have always failed to understand why he is categorized with the likes of Kendrick, Drake, Kanye and other artists of that tier. That said, I am never one to complain about the presence of a new J. Cole project and have great appreciation for the work he has done with Dreamville, bringing several of my favorite hip-hop artists to the mainstream scene. I went into this tape with an open mind, and while my review will probably be a mixed bag of sorts, as always, Cole at least left some very memorable tracks that will stay in my rotation for the foreseeable future.

Track by Track Breakdown:

1. 9 5 . south

  • Sean: Cole had me at the Cam’ron introduction. But it’s the Mario and Luigi reference for me. 
  • Rami: At this point, I was open to hearing a new, more braggadocious side of Cole, but I tend to be skeptical when rappers resort to simply highlighting their accolades. I was curious as to whether or not any of these one liners were directed at anyone in particular (ex. the “measly 100 thousand” line)?

2. a m a r i

  • Rami: A friend of mine made a remark that this song sounded a bit more like a Roddy Rich track than a Cole song. Just something to think about. I think this actually stayed with me for several more tracks throughout the mixtape.
  • Sean: A Roddy Rich song indeed Rami. This is an interesting move for Cole. I don’t hate it and Cole does have a nice melodic flow when he uses it. However, this song being sandwiched between “9 5 . south” and the next one limits it’s impact.

3. m y . l i f e

  • Sean: On first listen, it was an absolute shock when 21 Savage came in. This one might be my favorite track. The beat is smooth, Cole and 21 trade verses effortlessly and it’s more fun than a J. Cole album track has any right to be. 
  • Rami: Easily my favorite song on the project. Shoutout to Cole for sharing the spotlight with fellow Carolina artist Morray, who came up with a chorus that helped transition the track from Cole to 21 seamlessly. It goes without saying that 21 Savage did his thing, per usual. I am still not sure if this quite matches up with “a lot”, but I plan on listening to this song a lot in the coming weeks (no pun intended).

4. a p p l y i n g . p r e s s u r e

  • Sean: Verses like this are why J. Cole is respected by both old school Hip Hop heads and newcomers.  Technically speaking, it’s one of his best verses. The vitriol he’s spitting throughout puts this verse in rarified air though I could do with a shorter outro. 
  • Rami: This seemed to be a bit of fan-service to Cole’s more traditional rap oriented listeners, and while I can appreciate the craft and lyricism, for me personally I just can not see myself revisiting this track frequently.

5. p u n c h i n ‘ . t h e . c l o c k

  • Rami: I appreciated the sample and was impressed by his rhyme schemes on this track. Again, a solid track, but nothing really stood out to me enough to make this a track with high replay value.
  • Sean: This one is short but it packs a punch.  Cole drops yet another venom laced verse and the Dame Lillard samples are a nice bookend to an above average track. I’d have to agree with Rami though, not a lot of replay value here.

6. 100 . m i l ‘

  • Sean: On my first listen, this song confused me. The song structure and flow were off-putting to me. It was one of the only moments on the album that I didn’t enjoy.  In subsequent listens though, it has grown on me. 
  • Rami: I agree with Sean in that this song’s placement on the project seemed to confuse and at a point irritate me. To me, as Bas is one of my favorite rappers, it seems that throughout the album Cole underutilized Bas. I would have appreciated a more traditional rap feature from the skilled Dreamville signee, but it is what it is.

7. p r i d e . i s . t h e . d e v i l

  • Sean: Cole serves as a gatekeeper of sorts for old head fans of Hip Hop like myself. I had never listened to 21 Savage until Cole hopped on “A Lot.” Subsequently, I had never listened to Lil’ Baby until I heard him come in on this track.  This is my official apology for being old and stuck in my ways because, Baby can spit and I’ve been sleeping on him. 
  • Rami: I appreciated the finesse of this track, and admittedly I was pleasantly surprised by the Lil Baby feature. However, I simply can not get it out of my head that Cole used the “Can’t Decide” beat from Amine’s most recent album, “Limbo”. I felt that neither of the two MCs were built for the beat, but was especially impressed by Lil Baby’s ability to adapt to this atypical production.

8. l e t . g o . m y . h a n d

  • Rami: To be honest, I do not have much to say about this track. I am patient and appreciate slow-moving rap, but this track was just boring for me. Again, Cole underutilized two great artists in Bas and 6LACK, which frustrated me.
  • Sean: As Rami noted, this is a hard track to review. I really like the beat and I think Cole spits some honest, technically sound verses. I enjoy the song on the whole. However, it’s time I acknowledge what Rami has been alluding to. Cole really got Bas and 6LACK on a track just for backing vocals. That’s a perplexing decision. Also, respect to Diddy for hopping on for a quick prayer.

9. i n t e r l u d e

  • Sean: This is the third track where Cole spits as hard as he can for one full verse and it’s one of my favorite moments on the album. T-Minus killed this beat too.
  • Rami: This song definitely grew on me. Upon its release, I was not pleased with the sound Cole was going for, but the melody and Cole’s vocal inflections definitely grew on me after around three or four listens. A solid track! The beat was also phenomenal.

10. t h e . c l i m b . b a c k

  • Sean: We heard this back in July of 2020 but it still feels fresh.  As a standalone single, it was good however within the construct of this album, it works better.  One of the best tracks off the album and possibly an essential cut for J. Cole’s catalog at large. 
  • Rami: Again, I do not have much to say about this that would not be restating Sean’s opinions. This is an amazing track that may be overlooked. Side note: I would have appreciated it if Cole also included this track’s fellow single “Lion King on Ice” on the project.

11. c l o s e

  • Rami: This is the Cole I love. Here, he transcends from simply abrasive and boastful to self aware and confident in his rapping. I appreciated this song a lot, as I was at first turned off by this newer, more blunt and confident side of Cole and it helped me understand Cole’s deeper message regarding his status in both the rap community and the real world.
  • Sean: This song struck a chord with me on first listen and that feeling has only increased through more listening sessions. It’s poignant, honest and Cole weaves a picture so heartbreaking that you gotta feel something.  I would encourage everyone to take the time to read the lyrics along with the song for the full effect. 

12. h u n g e r . o n . h i l l s i d e

  • Sean: A fine cap to a great album. Cole ends “The Off-Season” on a positive note as the countdown to “The Fall Off” begins. 
  • Rami: To quote Jermaine himself from earlier, once he drops “The Fall Off” he will come and sell out Wrigley Field. If this project was indicative of anything, it established that this was a warm up, and Cole is more poised than ever. Let’s go!!

Closing Thoughts

     Overall, I enjoyed this album very much.  I think Cole has gotten to a place in Hip Hop where we take his technical greatness for granted.  He’s really out here rapping his ass off on every song whether it be features, freestyles or full length projects like this.  I’ll admit, I expected a bit more but I’m certainly not disappointed. If anything, this album reminded me of “The Warm-Up” J. Cole. Which is the artist I fell in love with initially.  “The Fall Off” will be more of a magnum opus than the “Off-Season.” However, in my opinion J. Cole came  back to his roots and made an album free from a concept but still true to himself.  

     Before the conceptualized albums, the “platinum with no features” bullshit and the grammy’s; Cole was just a kid who could rap better than almost all of his peers. That’s the version of him I heard on the “Off-Season.”  Ultimately, I’m not sure where this album will fall amongst the rest of his catalog. Honestly, I’m not sure it matters. J. Cole is one of the greatest emcees we have currently and this could be one of his last offerings. I’ll be appreciative of anything and everything we get from here on out. 

Rami, any last thoughts before we reveal our ratings?

Look, I like it, it’s fine. It is a solid, unsurprising J. Cole album. Around a third of the material plainly missed for me, but I tried to go into the tape with an open mind. While I have made it clear right now that Cole is not one of my favorites, I respect his ability and understand that we must appreciate greatness while it is around. J Cole is an objectively great rapper, and I am most definitely excited for what I am predicting to be his best project in “The Fall Off”.

Rating:

  • Sean: 8/10
  • Rami: A LIGHT 7, or strong 6.5. Not mid at all, but not phenomenal.

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