Published May 21, 2021
By ANDREW WANG
Rapper J. Cole’s newest project, “The Off-Season,” is a collection of braggadocious tracks that delivers his signature wordplay while simultaneously introducing hyped-up energy not present in his earlier albums.
“9 5 . s o u t h” is in many ways a perfect opener, perfectly demonstrating what “The Off-Season” is trying to do. Cole finds himself on an anthemic instrumental with blaring horns effortlessly layered with engaging flows, bars about his supremacy in the rap game and piercing one-liners like “Could put an M right on your head, you Luigi brother now.”
A soulful choir serves as the bassline in “m y . l i f e,” a collaboration between Cole and 21 Savage that rivals the critically acclaimed “a lot.” The two rappers take turns reminiscing over what it took for them to achieve fame while flowing over the beat like it’s nothing. Couple that with beautiful singing from Morray on the chorus and it’s a winning track.
Cuts like the hi-hat heavy “a m a r i,” the trappy “1 0 0 . m i l’,” and the Damian Lillard-sampling “p u n c h i n ‘ . t h e . c l o c k” — though certainly not lacking in clever lyricism and flow — feel like they have less direction or cohesiveness in comparison to the stronger tracks on the project.
Fortunately, “p r i d e . i s . t h e . d e v i l” is one of those high points; Cole spits witty bars denouncing his own pride and the pride of those around him while delivering a fun sing-song hook. All of this is coupled with the increasingly common hip-hop wobbly guitar and a fire verse from guest feature Lil Baby that matches Cole’s own energy.
The two singles of the album, “i n t e r l u d e” and “t h e . c l i m b . b a c k” are both fairly strong tracks in their own right. The former features a sing-song flow paired with a pleasing soul vocal sample, while the latter focuses on Cole’s life struggles and is chock-full of unique flows and one-liners, even if the line dissing PC culture ends up sounding a bit corny.
One of the more introspective tracks is “c l o s e,” where Cole raps about people that he used to be close with and how many of them fell victim to drug addiction or gun violence — and this picture gets pretty vivid. Like many of the other cuts, this track carries heavy boom-bap influences and relies on Cole’s raw rapping prowess to get listeners to bob their heads.
The Bas-assisted “h u n g e r . o n . h i l l s i d e” marks the end of this 12-song project and it contributes some anthemic and pretty amazing strings. The chorus is strong and its two verses are a further testament to Cole’s strengths, but having this song as the closer makes the ending of the project somewhat unsatisfying. Some slight rearrangement of the track order would have gone a long way.
On “The Off-Season,” Cole reminds listeners that he is a more-than-capable lyricist and knows how to make something sonically satisfying. He takes a step back from his previous albums’ “wokeness,” which fans considered profound and critics deemed corny, but even the critics will have a hard time denying the strengths of this latest installment.