With ‘The Off-Season,’ J. Cole Avoids Commercial Fealty To Strike Into Greater Cultural Truths

Given a series of social media announcements about future releases, its title and its comparative brevity in an era of albums stretching across 20 or more tracks, you’d be forgiven for mistaking “The Off-Season” for a minor effort in J. Cole’s vast discography, or some sort of stopgap — perhaps because of the pandemic but certainly in lieu of his purported magnum opus, “The Fall Off.” But Cole has always been just a little bit out of step with hip-hop’s trends, polarizing critics and fans alike with an engaging, thoughtful, jazzy style that harkens back to the artists who inspired him, including Jay-Z, Nas and Tupac, instead of acquiescing to the Auto-tuned, monotone sameness and pre-programmed drums of his contemporaries, and across a significant portion of his career, no guest stars or features on his songs. 

Featuring 21 Savage, Lil Baby and 6lack among others, his latest suggests that he’s clearly grown tired of the memes that sprung up around that choice, or perhaps discovered a new appetite for collaboration. But “The Off-Season” is as substantial as it is focused, a highly-concentrated work that reckons fiercely with industry vagaries and larger cultural concerns over soulful backdrops and clacking, sometimes merciless trap beats.

Dipset member Cam’ron acts as hype man on the album’s first track “95 South,” a much more menacing and operatic track than its title suggests; rather than drawing on the Miami bass sound of the artists responsible for “Whoot, There It Is,” Cole samples Jay-Z’s “U Don’t Know” (which itself uses Bobby Byrd’s “I’m Not To Blame”), offering a reminder of his success and independence, as well as a declaration of war against haters and phonies. “If I’m bettin’ on myself, then I’ll completely double down/ If you hated on a nigga, please don’t greet me with a pound,” he raps. “I be stayin’ out the way, but if the beef do come around / Could put a M right on your head, you Luigi brother now.” Meanwhile, Cole sings a bit on “Amari,” coproduced by Timbaland, but they studiously seem to avoid too many electronic enhancements, turning the melodic twists at the end of each lyric into a punch line and showcase for the rapper’s feverish energy, as he further explores his journey from Fayetteville to the top of the Billboard charts (“Country nigga never seen a passport / ‘Til I popped off and got a bag for it / Now I’m at the Garden sittin’ half court / Watchin’ Jr. catch it off the backboard”).

And then, “My Life,” featuring 21 Savage and Morray (the latter reinterpreting the hook of Pharoah Monch’s 2002 song “The Life”), explodes with unexpected life, starting with a subdued performance by Cole that shifts into the sort of breathless urgency that’s a cornerstone of Meek Mill’s delivery once he starts discussing the cultural and economic pressures of his upbringing (“Nigga, I’m just a product of poverty, full of narcotics to profit off quickly / My family tree got a history of users that struggle with demons / Not really the hustler instincts / Therefore, often, my pockets was empty”). With a Soundcloud-friendly style, 21 Savage isn’t the type of rapper you would expect to hear opposite Cole, but his call-and-self-response style proves a perfect counterpoint, and the two vanquish their opposition in an unforgettable team-up. 

If there was a danger of repetition in his subject matter by the fourth track, “Applying Pressure,” Cole somehow makes the hater-slaying anthem into an almost professorial excursion into what to do, and not, if you’re trying to stay fresh and relevant. The sole, blistering verse offers words of wisdom about social media trolls and ankle biters (“when niggas throw a shot or two online, I pay no mind to their benign gestures”), before observing some simple, important, even timeless truths: “But niggas throw stones knowin’ they sell soul to get wherever they at / Just know these verses is some shit they gon’ forever playback.”

Following a Mobb Deep-style minor-key trip down memory lane on “Punchin’ The Clock,” Cole collaborates with Bas on “100 Mil,” a languid, streets-to-the stars journey cataloguing his pedigree and his place among hip-hop’s firmament (“I come from a city most niggas ain’t heard of until they popped in my first CD, now look / I’m on that Mount Rushmore, you niggas can’t front no more, bitch, I’ma reign until FEMA show up”). Producer T-Minus builds “Pride Is The Devil” on a guitar that evokes the overheated vibes of DJ Khaled’s “Wild Thoughts,” making for an early summer sleeper as Cole and Lil Baby meditate on the dangers of pride and the problems it causes in work, love and life. “[Pride] make a nigga flash a thousand like he hit the lottery / Make a baby mama make shit harder than it gotta be,” says Cole; “All this money coming in, it drive me crazy not to show it,” Lil Baby later rejoins, “I’ll be crazy if I blow it.”

Featuring Bas and 6lack, “Let Go My Hand” feels like a more traditional hip-hop track, bouncing on a horn sample as Cole goes deep about his music, the industry, and a culture where so much feels so ephemeral (“Sometimes I question whether this shit matters / Puttin’ substance into something in a world so used to instant gratification”). Puff Daddy appears at the end of the cut with a benediction, after Cole mentions his 2013 scuffle in a bar with the rapper; the mogul has transformed himself a few too many times to convincingly sell himself as a true man of God, but one supposes it’s good that they put their differences in the past. He follows it up with an interlude and then “The Climb Back,” featuring cascading piano and an unsettling vocal sample that sounds almost like the cry box in a doll, forming a bass-heavy melody over which Cole reflects on some traumatic life experiences.

He wraps the album with “Close,” a tribute to a friend who succumbed to drug abuse, and “Hunger On Hillside,” where he guarantees listeners that he’ll remain the same no matter how successful he becomes — and for an album building to what he suggests is his masterpiece, “The Off-Season” is surprisingly substantive. So when Bas sings, “All the pain you hold / Makes you worth your weight in gold,” that may or may not be true, but J. Cole’s studied authenticity makes you believe it, at least for the duration of the song. He’s an artist who operates in a sphere unencumbered by the same commercial considerations (or more accurately, fears) of his contemporaries — which may ultimately be why he survives them all, creating a body of work that endures and strikes a nerve for years to come, even if it doesn’t tap into the immediate pulse of what listeners respond to at the moment it’s initially released.

The Off-Season” releases May 14 on Apple Music.