When J. Cole finished his first mixtape over a decade ago, he camped outside Jay–Z’s studio for hours to get a chance to see one of his inspirations. When Jay–Z finally saw him, decorated CD in hand, Cole says: “He just looked at me like, almost disgusted.” That moment of rejection would have deterred many aspiring artists from forging on—but not Cole. Nights sneaking into New York recording studios and Cole’s pure perseverance finally paid off when his mixtapes eventually caught the attention of Roc Nation, Jay–Z’s very own label, which signed him in 2009.
Now, after years of experience in the music industry and all five certified platinum albums (three with no features), Cole returns from a three–year break with his sixth studio album, The Off–Season. Although this project is markedly different from his previous work, The Off–Season is still emblematic of his core work ethic; the project feels like the refreshing result of an established rapper taking time to reevaluate his sound and career.
Having already achieved great success over the course of his storied career, perfecting his craft became Cole's his first and foremost concern when bringing this record to fruition. Over the years, Cole has spoken publicly about his aspiration to make music that lasts and influences others long after its release several times—a fact that has led some critics to write him and his music off as grave and preachy. However, The Off–Season takes itself less seriously, easing up on the somewhat sanctimonious feel of tracks on album predecessors like KOD and 4 Your Eyez Only.
The two features on The Off–Season also help bolster the album as a whole and add a refreshing change of pace to Cole’s often verbose and dense verses. Marking the first guest rap verses on a Cole album since 2013, 21 Savage’s distinctly low–key voice adds a different cadence to “m y . l i f e,” while Lil Baby takes over after Cole’s high–tempo bridge in “p r i d e . i s . t h e . d e v i l.” 21 Savage and Lil Baby both contrast Cole as artists, a potential reason why their appearances work so well within the album. 21 Savage, with his blunt and to–the–point lyricism, deviates from Cole’s love for winding, poetic rhymes. When reflecting on the pitfalls of fame, Lil Baby presents the perspective of a younger rapper whose pride got him swept up in fast cars and stacks of money; alternatively, Cole's thematic focus remains on the long–term effects on relationships and family.
Both 21 Savage and Lil Baby also differ from Cole in terms of their roles in the modern rap landscape. With monumental rap figures from the 2000–2010s like Jay–Z and Kanye West releasing new music at a slower rate, a markedly different sound has arisen with pop–rap artists like Lil Pump. These artists are distinctly high–energy and rap about surface–level subject matter that fit into the confines of pop music while straying from hip–hop's roots. The genre's tendency to de–emphasize lyrical matter and glorify material superficiality has even inspired SNL spoofs of its content. 21 Savage and Lil Baby’s discographies, while different, are closer to this newer style, and their presence on this project demonstrates a smart acknowledgment Cole's craft is fluid and ever–changing.
Even though Cole is somewhat open to traversing the shifting rap landscape, he in no way compromises his previous values. On KOD, he warns these young emerging artists about their recklessly lavish lifestyle and the impact that they have on rap music, with lyrics like “You coulda bought a crib with all that bread that you done blew / I know you think this type of revenue is never endin’ / But I wanna take a minute just to tell you that ain’t true.” “1985 – Intro to 'The Fall Off'” then continues to lament how the wildly successful rappers from recent years have commercialized rap with no understanding of its meaning or history. He accuses them of only being trends, fated to fall out of favor with the kids who made them popular in today’s day and age. And in "a p p l y i n g . p r e s s u r e," Cole warns them they'll one day discover they have nothing remaining after their 15 minutes of fame end: No money, no real friends, and not even music that will stand the test of time.
Cole’s criticism of these rappers simultaneously encapsulates what makes Cole great and what has been haunting him for years: a fixation on his legacy. He can feel the clock ticking, can feel that he is a more weathered figure suddenly out of place alongside young, fresh–faced rappers in a game that’s constantly shifting. Cole is not one to shy away from vocalizing his inner monologue, both in song form and in interviews. Contemplating the potential end of his rap career in an interview with Slam, Cole thought back to his wildly successful and acclaimed album, 2014 Forest Hills Drive. Following the Forest Hills Drive tour, he said he asked himself “Did you max out your skill? Did you max out your abilities ... And at that time, I remember feeling like, No, no you didn’t. The truth was very clear.”
The Off–Season speaks to Cole’s pure drive. Instead of embracing comfort, he actively works against it. In the short documentary teasing the album, Cole explains that in the midst of his comfort, he couldn’t help but think about another question he posed back in his college days when he was at the precipice of breaking into the music industry. “Do you really wanna look back ten, 20 years from now with this music shit and be like the reason you didn't make it in music is because you didn’t put in the work?” Before he’s ready to leave rap music behind, Cole applies this philosophy to see if he can reach new heights—and if "p u n c h i n' . t h e . c l o c k" is any indication, he's been putting in the hours in order to make sure he didn't just peak in 2014.
Cole seems to view The Off–Season and his potentially final album, The Fall Off, as the last gasping breaths of a rapper who has achieved all he can. And maybe, listening to Cole rhythmically weave through the perennial teen experience in "Wet Dreamz," you might feel that this is Cole at his very best, as a storyteller who makes listeners feel as though they're another classmate in that math class he raps about. But The Off–Season is a lively testament to his ever–present grit, a kicking declaration that Cole has more to offer as a rapper because of his experience and background, not in spite of it. Cole has recently shifted to playing professional basketball for the Rwanda Patriots Basketball Club, and with The Fall Off era approaching, it might seem as though Cole is ready to put down the mic—but if we know anything about Cole, it’s that he’s not done cementing his music legacy just yet.