Filled with dexterous rhymes, surprise collaborations and dynamic production, the 12-track new album reaffirmed Cole’s status as a rap titan. There are a lot of obviously dope elements of the project, but there’s even more to unpack once you listen to it a few times. What is he rapping about? How is this different from his most recent projects? How has he evolved his technique? Today, it’s time to look into the answers to those questions.
Here are seven takeaways from J. Cole’s new album.
1. He’s Got Dope Album Rollouts Down to a Science
Loyal J. Cole fans were always going to cop The Off-Season, but that doesn’t make Cole’s album rollout any less dope. Over the last few weeks, the North Carolina rhymer has promoted his new project on multiple fronts, first announcing the release date on social media before releasing “Interlude” as the first single from the project that same week. He unloaded a documentary for the album a week later. From there, it was reported that he’d signed on to play some professional basketball games for the Rwanda Patriots. He also shared his tracklist without listing his features, essentially tricking fans into thinking the Platinum With No Features meme would live on. At the moment, Cole’s new album is projected to sell over 300,000 equivalent album units in its first week, which goes to show that his promotional machine is still very much intact.
2. He’s Let Loose
After spending most of his last two albums writing concept songs for beats he mostly produced himself, Cole’s finally let loose. On The Off-Season, he grabs A-List features (21 Savage and Lil Baby) and more outside producers while serving up lengthy verses and a whole lot of punchy bars for songs that play out like extended, more structured versions of his L.A. Leakers freestyle. There’s a splash of randomness that makes everything less predictable than his most recent projects. For “95. South,” he taps Cam’ron to be his hype man, and loops in a Lil Jon and The East Side Boyz sample. Meanwhile, he also makes time to grab Morray and 21 Savage for a track called “My. Life.” With a soul sample and a hook that interpolates Styles P and Pharoahe Monch’s “The Life,” the song is an inventive cocktail of Black music’s past and present. After years of his detractors calling him out for being boring, Cole’s collaborating more and coloring outside the lines in a way he hasn’t in a long time.
3. It’s His Most Personal Album in Years
The Off-Season is the most personal LP Cole’s released in almost seven years. His last two projects, 2016’s 4 Your Eyez Only and 2018’s KOD, turn the focus onto outside perspectives, with the former being about a drug dealer’s message to his daughter and the latter largely being an examination of drug culture. This one is a very first-person-oriented affair, with Cole delving into memories from his own childhood (“Punchin’.The. Clock”), falling outs with friends (“The.Climb.Back”) and even his experiences parenting (“Let.Go.My.Hand”). If you were looking for a snapshot of Cole’s life over the last few years, The Off-Season is probably as close as it gets.
4. He Felt He Had Something to Prove
Cole’s never come across as being too sensitive. But, after hearing his rant at the end of “Applying. Pressure,” you’d think he’s spent too much time looking through mean tweets and felt the need to set his haters straight. In reality, though, Cole is his own motivation. In his new short film Applying Pressure: The Off-Season Documentary, he talks about how the notion of fighting complacency drove him to put together his latest LP. The result is a project that almost feels restless — like Cole’s making a point to leave no stylistic or thematic stone unturned. On songs like “Pride.Is.The.Devil” he gets into melody for the hook before getting introspective in a verse about times he couldn’t get over himself. But by the time he gets to the bridge, he’s talking about getting money, and moments later, Lil Baby’s in all out flex mode as he delivers yet another stellar guest verse. Cole’s also got plenty of quippy bars for haters, leeches and anyone else who’s ever doubted him. He calls out his doubters, but it’s his own mentality that’s driving him this time around.
5. For Cole, Ball Really Is Life—Even More Than You Think
If you think about it, a lot of J. Cole’s career has involved a reference to basketball in some way or another. The cover of his breakout mixtape, The Warmup, features an image of him clutching a basketball, and the title of his debut album, Cole World: A Sideline Story, is a nod to being on the sideline. Even the rollout for Revenge of the Dreamers III felt like a tryout with Cole tweeting a message that sounded like a coach telling prospective players they didn’t make the cut. Still, The Off-Season is proof that he is an even bigger NBA fan than anyone thought. For the LP, the MC makes countless references to NBA players. On “Punchin’.The.Clock,” he includes part of an interview Damian Lillard gave after dropping 61 points in the NBA’s Orlando bubble last summer. Meanwhile, on “Amari,” he name-drops Russell Westbrook and on “100.Mil’” he name-checks LeBron James. There’s a lot more where that came from, but you get the idea.
6. J. Cole and 21 Savage Is the Duo We Didn’t Know We Needed
J. Cole and 21 Savage are officially two-for-two. Back in 2018, Cole appeared on “A Lot,” which is the intro for 21’s I Am > I Was album. For The Off-Season, 21 returned the favor by appearing on “My.Life,” which sounds like a spiritual sequel to their first collab. Like “A Lot,” this one features a soul sample, and for the track, both lay bare their inner thoughts. Cole got the best of 21 the first time, so it’s only right that 21 took home the best verse honors for “My.Life.” For his verse, the Atlanta rapper gets into some casually cinematic details about his life to date — going from mournful to ruthless and kind of funny all within just a few bars:
“The stuff that I’ve seen got me traumatized/I let the K go when Johnny died/Swinging’ that motherfucker side to side/We don’t participate, ain’t with that squashin’ shit, all we believe in is homicide/ got a good heart, so I send teddy bears every time we make they mommas cry.”
With two successful collabs in the books, it looks like J. Cole and 21 Savage might be the duo we didn’t know we needed. A Kendrick Lamar and Cole project is probably never coming, but maybe it’s time fans start coming up with a new fantasy with these two.
7. He’s Still Getting Better
J. Cole’s been at this rap thing for a long time, and he’s accomplished enough to the point where no one could blame him for slacking off. But instead, on The Off-Season, his rhymes are more exact, his flows are more dynamic and his boasts are more memorable. On “95.South,” where he fires off a dismissive rap game economics lesson that would make JAY-Z proud, he raps, “This shit too easy for me now/Nigga, Cole been goin’ plat’ since back when CDs was around/What you sold, I tripled that, I can’t believe these fuckin’ clowns/Look how everybody clappin’ when your 30-song album do a measly hundred thou’,” as he contextualized his own decade-long dominance in the process.
Throughout the LP, Cole’s rhyme patterns are unpredictable and his palette of words proves to be more extensive than ever. For “Punchin’.The. Clock,” he flaunts some impressive alliteration and manages to rhyme canopy with calamity before serving up a christianity punchline that works way better than it should. Every once in a few verses, he spits a regrettable punchline (The Luigi’s brother line from “95. South” comes to mind), but for the most part, Cole outdoes himself.