The Off Season (released May 14, 2021)
Riddle a playa this: What do Ludacris, Jadakiss and J. Cole have in common?
Well, despite being top-tier MCs with incredible songs and features on their resume, all three lack that one, definitive classic LP.
Now before the Cole Miners among us start smashing their phones in frustration or sending death tweets, let’s examine Jermaine Cole’s storied career: After a brief stumble with his debut album, Cole truly found his sound in the early 2010s with Born Sinner and 2014 Forest Hills Drive – the latter being the closest he’d come to attaining that rarified “classic” designation.
But as his fame (and stan-dom) continued to grow in the decade, later releases like 4 Your Eyez Only and KOD may have been embraced by his enthusiastic fanbase but, objectively speaking, those LPs were dragged down by lethargic production and pacing. And even though I’ve gone on record to say his 2010 release Friday Night Lights is one of the greatest mixtapes ever – yes, ever – every subsequence release since seemed to be a step away from that initial greatness.
I say this as a Day One Cole fan – it seemed as his fame grew larger, his hunger lessened.
The Off Season, Cole’s sixth LP, made me eat those words, and I’m glad to be proven wrong.
Trust, I was skeptical at first. Cole leaked “Interlude” a few days before The Off Season’s official release and I wasn’t moved – it suffered from the same sluggish pacing that handcuffed Cole’s last few major releases. But that proves to be an anomaly, as Cole exhibits a newfound fire here.
Cole’s “no guest features” philosophy has fueled many a meme over the past few years – the irony being that I find Cole to be MUCH more potent when sharing tracks with other high-profile artists. That’s why the addition of Cam’ron and Lil Jon as hype men on album opener “95 South” was such a pleasant surprise.
This s*** too easy for me now
Cole been going plat’ since back when CDs was around
What you sold, I tripled that, I can’t believe these f***in clowns
Look how everybody clappin’ when your 30-song album do a measly hundred thou’
If I’m betting on myself, then I’ll completely double down
It’s that Mixtape Cole energy we’ve missed, blending aggressive cockiness and lyrical acumen for Jermaine’s trademark brand of storytelling.
True to those bars, the theme of The Off Season is an examination of the price of fame – and all that it costs. Tracks like “Applying Pressure” are here purely as a flex (“didn’t know I got more M’s than a “Real Slim Shady” video”). Others like “Let Go My Hand” are much more introspective, with Cole using the parallels of his growing son, who is now too cool to hold daddy’s hand, to his own maturation into manhood – including mentioning his infamous scrap with Puffy in 2013. Diddy even shows up on the outro to prove that fences have been mended.
“My Life” is another psychological deep dive, showing how Cole’s fractured family issues were the catalyst for his motivation to succeed. 21 Savage returns as well, making this sort of a sequel track to 2019’s “A Lot.” Remarkably, 21 continues to improve on every track – Lord knows no one will confuse him with Kool G Rap anytime soon but his addictive delivery and surprising vulnerability really shine through.
At times, though, Cole does slip into a few bad habits. Thankfully the production is much stronger this time around, thanks to a few heavy hitters like Timbaland and Jake One coming in for an assist (“Hunger on Hillside,” featuring Boi-1da, Don Mills and DrtWrk behind the boards, is boom bap paradise) but the unnecessary vocal affects that invade every rap modern release still creep up like silverfish in your grandma’s house. Admittedly it’s not too distracting on tracks like “Amari” but becomes quite irritating throughout “100 Mil.” Still, Cole gets props for showing a bit more restraint than in the past.
The one-two punch of “The Climb Back” and “Close” are the type of tracks that made me a fan of J. Cole way back in the late 00s – the former putting gun violence under the microscope while the latter shows the tragic effects of that culture, resulting in the death of his friend. Forget the weirdos on Twitter who manufacture narratives about the greatest of Cole – it’s the passionate, fiery storytelling showcased here that prove Cole is a giant among his peers.
But does that greatness mean that Cole finally has that undeniable classic? Probably not – The Off Season does have a few weak spots but it’s a vast improvement over his most recent releases, easily his best since Forest Hills Drive and comfortably among the best albums of 2021 so far.
Perhaps The Off Season‘s biggest revelation is that despite scores of fans already set to crown him king, Cole’s hunger for the throne has not subsided. He doesn’t want you to tell him that he’s the best, he wants to prove it.
That elusive classic might be his sooner than later.
Best tracks: “My Life,” “Let Go My Hand,” “95 South”
4 stars out of 5