Your 30s are a different game than your 20s. It’s the difference between fighting for survival and playing for longevity. You run yourself ragged creating something meaningful — a career, a body of work, a family, a worldview — and then you spend the rest of your life cultivating and defending it. You crash and burn as you learn your limits and tolerances, strengths and weaknesses, and then you figure out how to cruise. At the end of the aughts, J. Cole, then a mixtape artist gaining attention for his increasingly fluid lyricism and his growing knack for working samples, blew up through sheer persistence. He dropped a new project almost every year between 2007 and 2015 and stayed on the road, touring The Warm Up, Friday Night Lights, Cole World: The Sideline Story, Truly Yours, Born Sinner, Revenge of the Dreamers, and 2014 Forest Hills Drive with the likes of Jay-Z, Rihanna, Wale, Big K.R.I.T., Drake, and Eminem. He built and nurtured a base while working out the kinks in his sound. He modeled himself after his ’90s hip-hop heroes but kept tabs on the new school, positioning himself as an intermediary figure, a rapper young enough to have the ear of a new generation of fans but old enough to revere the classics and challenge the motivations of younger peers. He adapted (albeit slowly and not without lapses) to criticism of his less-than-enlightened stances. He refined his craft admirably on 2016’s 4 Your Eyez Only and 2018’s KOD. J. Cole got good and then he sorta ghosted.
The three-year stretch between KOD and this spring’s The Off-Season marks the longest break between albums in J. Cole’s career thus far, appearances on Dreamville Records’ impressive 2019 Revenge of the Dreamers III comp and singles like 21 Savage’s “A Lot” and Young Thug’s “London” notwithstanding. A husband and father of two, at 36, he’s learning when to rush and when to throttle, balancing a never-ending quest to make better music with a desire to kick back and enjoy prosperity. Five albums deep, it’s hard to surprise people. You know the game well enough to coast, though you’re stable enough to take chances. Your sixth album can be a creative rebirth — see: Jay’s The Blueprint, Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter III, Kanye’s Yeezus, and Common’s Be — or it can be the point where you begin to run out of steam and rehash stale formulas to pleasant if diminishing returns, like Eminem’s Relapse. Cole, a student of hip-hop history as much as he seeks to be a pivotal figure in it, is milking this moment, heralding his next big move with a protracted rollout full of teasers and warmup projects. As the title suggests, The Off-Season is sort of a training montage, a blade-sharpening exercise not unlike Drake’s If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late in its core objective of showing the work it takes to stay on top while cultivating buzz for a future release (in this case, Cole’s forthcoming The Fall Off) — and maybe notching a few more hit records along the way.
The Off-Season marks the return of mixtape Cole, from its cover — which revisits the basketball theme of 2007’s The Come Up and 2009’s The Warm Up — to the songs, where the structures and themes of the early tapes will present as familiar to longtime listeners. Most songs amount to one long verse where Cole expounds on the state of his life and the world beyond it, sometimes offset by a vocalist or a guest rapper, breaking a five-year streak of featureless releases. The Off-Season revisits the headspace and haunts of Cole’s early career, and in the parallels between the music he made then and now, you begin to see how much his life and circumstances have changed since his career exploded. It’s a nostalgia trip, both figuratively and literally. “95 South” name-checks the highway that carried Cole from North Carolina, where the Fayetteville native was raised, to New York City, where he toiled doggedly toward realizing his dream of being a performer, as recounted in older records, like his verse over Kanye West’s “Homecoming.” In “Applying Pressure,” Cole is taunting younger artists who prefer to count money they haven’t yet earned than speak on the difficulty of finding safe footing in the music industry, as he did in songs like “Dead Presidents” and “Dead Presidents II,” which outline the pitfalls of fast money schemes and the stresses of being an unsigned artist. A scene in the video for “Amari” revisits the dorm-room life we heard about in cuts like “College Boy,” “School Daze,” and “Nobody’s Perfect,” only now, the wall is lined with platinum plaques. We’ve come full circle and realized the dream. What comes after the dream, though, is tedium, maintenance.
The Off-Season isn’t quite as potent as KOD, admittedly due to the rust accumulated since then, but in its focus on the Sisyphean climb, the yearning for greatness we might never attain, it is always relatable, frequently motivational, and sometimes quite impressive. Bouncing verses off of guests again seems to reinvigorate Cole. The guys who get verses are kindred spirits of a sort. Lil Baby and 21 Savage, street rappers with technical savvy and a sense for the sociopolitical movements that make life how it is, keep Cole on his toes on “Pride Is the Devil” and “My Life.” Baby’s quick, melodic flow shows where Cole’s dabbling in the same style needs improvement, and Savage’s ease balancing smirking, believable threats of terror and heartbreaking stories about loss take these songs places Cole wouldn’t. He should invite his friends over more often; they bring different colors to his music. J. Cole’s catalogue is a very millennial experiment in bridging styles, regions, and generations, and while he’s done a solid and ever-improving job of it, he doesn’t have to attempt, and be good at, everything. He knows that, but he’ll never stop trying. It’s admirable to the extent that it pays off. When it doesn’t, it invites the question of how much Cole has changed since his come up.
On the front end of the record, Cole is trying to prove himself to be a jack of all trades, traversing between the Blueprint fan service and North-South dichotomies of “95 South,” the obligatory guitar-and-trap-drum melding of “Amari,” the trap-soul hybridization of “My Life” and “100 Mil’,” and the nostalgic East Coast and West Coast rap moods of “Punchin’ the Clock” and “Applying Pressure.” Some of these exercises feel rote; you hear something like “Amari” on every Future record, and the further Cole pushes his singing voice on cuts like “100 Mil’” and “Pride Is the Devil,” the more out of his depth he feels. Further into the record, “Let Go My Hand” wows, effecting the skittering start-stop cadences of latter-day Andre 3000 features as Cole shares thoughts on fatherhood and tells an insane story about fighting Diddy, followed by an unexpected prayer from the Bad Boy baron himself. The flows and storytelling in the last handful of songs — including “Close,” an emotional yarn about friendship lapsing into betrayal; “Interlude,” a killer rhyme workout that ranks among Cole’s best; and “The Climb Back,” the 2020 single where Cole raps like a ’96 Hov — offer tantalizing hints at better records on the horizon. The lines that don’t land — “If you broke and clownin’ a millionaire, the joke is on you,” “One phone call get you canceled like a homophobe in this PC culture,” “All them niggas is so Kane, they started singin’ like Danity” — take us back to the dorm-room days in the wrong ways. Is he just dusting off the cobwebs, giving fans a peek inside his head as he carefully assembles a better, tighter album we’ll hear in due time? Or has J. Cole peaked already?