“Don’t check your watch, you know the time,” J. Cole commands in the opening track of his newly released album, “The Off-Season.” He’s not lying: After all, we do know, with the lead-up to this album including two singles and a documentary detailing the process of its creation. The famously clever lyricist dropped 12 tracks, and after multiple listens, it’s clear that the rapper is experimental with this project, trying techniques he had previously never used. While this was somewhat expected given the style that typified the singles, the real question was whether this mixtape could rival his other projects.
The most noticeably consistent and prevalent aspect of this album is J. Cole’s beat selection. He emphasizes soul and R&B samples layered with 808 drums, instead of the more trap-inspired melodies or acoustic back beats that he used on many of his past tracks. On “The Off-Season,” essentially every song follows this pattern, representing a departure from styles he used in previous albums such as the trap heavy “KOD,” or the far more alternative “Cole World: Sideline Story.” While this means one’s appreciation of the specific nature of “The Off-Season” beats significantly determines the listener’s enjoyment, it must be said that Cole’s ability to put out projects demonstrating his mastery of such varying styles is impressive nonetheless.
For an artist like J. Cole, beat selection is only a small part of the songwriting process. He always brings smart and slick-worded lyrics to his compositions as well, rife with deeper meanings and innuendos—on “The Off-Season,” his delivery of such lines is especially deft. Perhaps it is because Cole’s granular and sultry voice fits the soul genre perfectly, but I found his lines to be particularly biting. In the album’s most widely-streamed song so far, “Amari,” he raps: “This where the opps move real slow/Won’t vote but they mob deep with poles.” Just within this skillfully-crafted line, he references voter suppression, systemic racism and juxtaposing political aspirations with the simple desire to live another day. Cole continues to flaunt his master songwriting in various other tracks on the album, including “Punchin’ the Clock,” where he analogizes the death of someone showing off jewelry to having “died over a cross just like the start of Christianity.”
The topics that Cole touches on in his lyrics are always important and thoughtful. For example, on the profoundly introspective “Pride Is the Devil,” he considers the pros and cons of an inflated sense of pride: “Pride hide the shame when city cut off all utilities/ Pride hide the pain of growing up inhaling poverty.” However, he describes that it can also make a person hard-headed and unable to ever admit fault, rapping that he “Got uncles and some aunties that’s too proud to give apologies.” The track is a touching reflection of someone simply trying to navigate a complex world. This, in addition to many other issues Cole tackles, results in a topically dense and intricate album that, while very thought-provoking to listen to, is symptomatic of a general lack of cohesiveness. Such a characteristic of sharp focus is intrinsically “J. Cole” in nature, as his past albums have all been centrally based on specific topics. “2014 Forest Hills Drive” is an anecdotal look at his upbringing and how significant experiences from his childhood have shaped him today. “KOD” is a careful examination of the profit-driven American attitude and capitalist system that fosters so many Kids on Drugs. Because Cole experiments with this new album, “The Off-Season” appears to be an opportunity for him to discuss the various issues that bother him, without concern for tying it all together.
Cole continues to try new techniques with this album by featuring other artists in his songs. Considering he has not released an album with a single guest verse in six years, the inclusion of other artists on this project is a very welcome change. Now that he has proven his ability to release high-quality and successful music without needing other wordsmiths, it is time for Cole to reconquer the skill of collaboration. “The Off-Season” features the likes of Lil Baby, Bas, 6lack and 21 Savage, and while I do appreciate the contributions of the former three, 21 Savage definitely stole the show. Appearing in one of the best tracks on the album, “My Life,” the Atlanta rapper expertly slides onto the soulful and bouncy beat, perfectly complimenting J. Cole. Alluding to the immense success of the two rappers’ last collaboration “A Lot,” the duo has hit it out of the park again. Lil Baby and Bas also have notably good verses—and in the latter’s case, an outro—however, 21 Savage delivered the best verse on the whole project, and his feature dramatically enhances one of my personal favorite tracks. Through his earnest introspection, saying “I pray my past ain’t ahead of me / When I love, I love heavily,” he contributes to the album’s atmosphere of intimacy in his own special way.
Forming opinions on the strengths of “The Off-Season” is an exercise in managing expectations. For example, “The Climb Back,” a track in which Cole finds his musical pocket while discussing the issues that people face growing up in violent neighborhoods, may have been the album’s best song, However, it was released over a year ago, and set an extremely high standard of quality from the very beginning. Similarly, “Interlude,” a short but sweet track with excellent vocal performance, was released the week prior to release. In hindsight, these two songs represent some of the highest points of the album, and so going into the first listen, many fans were anticipating twelve songs of the same quality. These heightened expectations, coupled with the acclaim that an artist with J. Cole’s prowess carries when dropping new music, created almost impossibly surpassable projections. It is also incredibly hard for one to not be slightly disappointed by the album as a whole, considering the initial anticipation. While there wasn’t a single “bad” song, there were few, if any, that actually lived up to the standard of the pre-released songs.
With “The Off-Season,” J. Cole adds to his legacy of profound lyrics, expert delivery and already diverse skill set by experimenting with a new style. Despite expectations for something generationally great, it is hard to fault the artist for putting out something in which he could try out new techniques that he enjoyed. Even if the final product did not live up to the Cole standard, it should be viewed more so as a credit to the incredible discography of the artist, rather than as a significant slight to the album.
Album Rating: 6.4 / 10
Best Songs: “My Life,” “Interlude,” “The Climb Back,” “Hunger on Hillside”
Best Feature: 21 Savage (“My Life”)