J. Cole - The Off-Season Album Review
The newest and sixth studio album by J. Cole, one of the figureheads of the rap game for the last decade, was released this Friday. Originally titled "The Fall Off", but now "The Off-Season" was teased on Cole's last major solo release, KOD. I’m a fan of this album but am pretty hot and cold with Cole overall. Either finding what he does interesting and impressive or a missed opportunity, given how good the focused and topical songs Cole has released are. Given that, I came into this album tentative.
I’m gonna get the first three songs out of the way off the bat. To put it shortly: I’m not crazy about any of these. The opening track is solid, but, again, I’m not that into it. I like the sampled horns, and the bars are by no means bad, but it’s just slightly underwhelming. The drums are a little too slow for the momentum the intro just built up, and when Cole comes in with a slower flow it feels like you poked the balloon, but it’s slowly deflating instead of popping. Not a bad track though, and content-wise it functions as an opener and a tone-setter. The next song, Amari, is easily my least favorite track and to me the worst on the album. It’s just boring. The vocalizations at the start make me wince. The instrumental is not engaging at all, being a basic and by the numbers guitar/flute loop that could be on any Gunna song ever, and the actual melodic parts are much quieter than the drums. The first and only verse goes through three transitions delivery-wise, none of which are very good. Cole starts the verse mumbling and sort of slurring his words, then moves to almost shouting and almost singing but not quite, all while still slurring some of his words, then moves to straight-up shouting, and it’s honestly extremely annoying. The auto-tune as well on this track is pretty noticeable and isn’t very flattering. Content-wise, the hook doesn’t really say much. A typical few bars about coming up and making money, the verse does nothing interesting, again talking about how Cole could get you killed, etc. The first two song’s verses pretty much talk about the same thing the whole time. Overall, again, the weakest of the 12. I genuinely do not like this song, which I didn’t expect from Cole, but with him appearing on songs like The London, which sounds very similar to this (which I also wasn’t crazy about), he seems to be branching out into a trendier, more trappy sound on some songs. The third of the first three is easily the best. Honestly, I like everything about this song, there’s just one thing holding it back for me. It has one of my favorite beats on the album, the hook is an earworm and the delivery by Morray couldn’t be better than it already is, and 21 Savage on the second verse was a happy surprise. The only thing that made me group it in with the first two mediocre songs is Cole’s delivery on most of the first verse. Again, he’s annoyingly shouting the majority of the time. I sit there trying to get into the flow and the beat but keep getting pulled out of it by Cole yelling at me about essentially the exact same things he’s rapped about on the first two tracks. The 21 feature is a pretty typical 21 Savage verse lyrically (although with some good one-liners, ex: “I disrespect you respectfully”), but is a welcome change with his smooth flow and cold delivery you can expect from him most of the time.
Applying Pressure is the first song on the album that really caught my ear, immediately coming in with a head-bobbing beat, almost reminding me of Firing Squad off 2014 FOHD. While about half the verse is a typical Cole verse and nothing too different from what we heard on the first three tracks, the other half has a solid 8 bars of an interesting perspective from Cole about current rappers putting up a facade of wealth and luxury while still having yet to make it in the rap game, and bringing it back to himself, having been in the position they were in.
"Ain't nothin' wrong with livin' check to check 'cause most have to (I understand that)
What it's like to be nice as fuck but got to stress to pay the bills
Not even on dates I celebrated my birth
Just did the mental math and calculated my worth
(side note: I’m a big fan of the ad-libs on these eight bars, and the song in general)
My only drawback with this song is that after the verse ends, Cole spends the next minute talking shit and arbitrarily saying the same thing in different words, which gets really old really fast.
The next song, Punchin’ the clock is one of the best on the album. It starts and ends with clips from a Damian Lillard interview which I love, and Cole comes in with an interesting and compelling verse over a smooth, jazzy, almost nocturnal beat with some vocal samples. It reminds me of some older Outkast. The song is just under two minutes which is slightly disappointing, but the verse makes up for it. Cole tells a story about being given a gun as a kid in school, shooting it and potentially killing somebody, and how he lived with that and the paranoia it brought him. My few issues with this song are again, how short it feels. Given that the single verse is sandwiched between two interview clips, it really doesn’t feel like it’s around for very long. It’s a somewhat rare moment of a more structured concept, but we don’t even get a full two minutes. As well as how some of the vocalizations on the instrumental are slightly out of key, but those are only noticeable when you aren’t paying attention to the verse. Easily one of my favorites on the album.
100 Mil’ and Pride is the Devil are two sides of the same coin, with it feeling like one has what the other should have. 100 Mil’ feels like a missed opportunity to me. It has the standard Cole verse that it feels like we’ve heard 3 times already that should have been on the somewhat uninteresting and basic Pride is the Devil beat, and the Pride is the Devil verse has the interesting concepts that I wish the 100 Mil’ beat had gotten. But no, 100 Mil’ starts with a frankly awfully sung hook (who let this slide??) and then gets a pretty bog-standard verse, which again, really feels like a missed opportunity because of how good the beat is. Although once the hook is sung by someone who actually seems to want to try, I start to get the appeal and the catchiness of it. Again Pride is the Devil is a mixed bag for me. I like the ideas, but I’m not sure how much I like how they were delivered. It has one of the best and most thematically rich verses on the album but it’s over a basic and boring beat (although the drums on this do get you into it), and is topped off with a pretty average Lil Baby verse (although his flow on this is pretty damn good). It’s an unfortunate missed chance for one of the best songs on the album. It’s catchy, and has some good concepts but misses on some key parts.
Let Go My Hand is possibly the best track on the album. It has an incredible jazz-rap instrumental that could have come straight off 4 Your Eyez Only and Cole brings one of his best verses on the album, talking about how you need to give things time, his experiences with religion, his experience as a father, and then closes it with some of my favorite lines on the whole project.
“Ignorance is bliss and innocence is just ignorance before it’s introduced to currensy and clips, or bad licks that have a n****a serving three to six, shit.”
The hook on this song is incredible too, in an almost haunting way. The “soldier song” lyric makes me think of an old folktale or nursery rhyme, and paired with the beat, it creates the perfect vibe and tone. Then when it’s given more depth by the addition of Bas and 6lack, it makes it even better than it was before. Not to mention that the brief rendition of the hook Cole did on his own was some of his best singing on the album. Bas closes the song as well, but that brings me my only little nit-pick. The structure of the song isn’t great. It feels like it slowly descends, which for the most part is fine, but you only hear from Cole for the first half of the song, and given how compelling he was on the first half, it makes me wish we could have gotten more from him on the back half. We only get a bridge and some spoken word at the end, both done by other people.
This brings me to Interlude and the Climb Back, the two singles. Interlude has come to be one of my favorites on this project. The content of the verse doesn’t stem too much from some of the other verses I’ve had problems with, but the description of the reality Cole describes with the amount of detail and lyricism he brings makes it a lot more engaging than most verses in a similar vein on this album. Not to mention that the beat doesn’t disappoint, and neither does the flow Cole comes out of the gate with. When initially listening to this song I was bothered by the autotune on Cole’s voice, but with more time it’s become less and less relevant to me as I’ve been able to get more and more into the rhythm and flow throughout the track. The Climb Back, in short, is an extremely solid song. I have no real complaints with it, aside from lyrical content not being the song's strong suit, but with the word play Cole comes in with, it’s not even a problem for me. Everything about it is at its worst decent and at its best elite. Although, one thing about this song for me is the clip at the start.
“Are you doing this work to facilitate growth or to become famous? Which is more important? Getting or letting go?”
It’s two interesting dichotomies that I was hoping would be explored more throughout the album when I first heard it as a single (or even just on the song itself) but it’s kind of just thrown out there and left to dry, which is slightly frustrating, given the amount of verses on this project that are essentially each about the same thing. It seems like something simple enough for Cole to at least give a verse to, but we hear nothing remotely close to it for the rest of the album. Again, a frustrating missed opportunity for a deeper concept, even on this one song.
Close is a track that I hadn’t been given a chance to give much attention to, but once I gave it a deeper listen I’ve come to realize how good of a song it is. The beat is similar to a lot on this album, but that in no way makes it bad. Another R&B/soul sample backed by drums walking the line between boom bap and trap. Cole comes through with a fantastic verse and interesting story that again, I wish we had gotten more of, or at least more of something as focused as this. He raps about a friend of his who gets caught up and way too deep into selling drugs and using drugs himself. He puts it well, saying he sees him like a ghost, and says he’s like a shell of his former self. Cole then has a dream about this friend being killed, just to wake up the news that he was killed in real life. It doesn’t end with a hook, or anything other than Cole repeating the phrase “close”(which was littered throughout the verse) but honestly, it’s a chilling way to end a heavy story. This track reminds me of FOHD again, and it’s been one of the more slept on songs so far it seems.
In all honesty, Hunger on Hillside is a slightly underwhelming way to wrap up the album. The beat is another sampled string piece with tasteful drums, but Cole doesn’t really do much in the way of theme or concept on the verse, and we get back to some of the annoying delivery quirks he had on the first half. The two verses are relatively short, the hook is nothing special, and the outro from Bas is nothing crazy either. I don’t have much to say on this one. It’s decent.
Topping off at 12 songs and 39 minutes, The Off-Season doesn’t stick around for too long, but you get the album experience. This is by no means a bad album, but it’s not great. It’s similar to a lot of Cole’s projects. Interesting ideas here or there, but they’re tucked between a few bland or just decent tracks with not much to say outside of typical rap topics. I again find myself begging for more concept, because when Cole gets into an idea, it makes for some of the best hip hop out there but we again get an album diluted by flex bars and boring topics. J. Cole is the best braggadocio rapper out there, there’s no doubt about it, but when going for something more focused it seems hard for him to stay consistent. For the most part though, I enjoyed it. While yes, I always want more concept from him, I can always enjoy the cleverness in his wordplay and the more thematic songs he does make.
Favorite songs: punchin’ the clock, let go my hand, close
Least favorite songs: amari