By Staff Writer Varun Upadhyay
If the off-season is the time to sharpen one’s skills and perfect one’s craft, then J. Cole, one of rap’s biggest names, has achieved that in his three years off before returning with his sixth studio album, The Off-Season. On this energetic 12-track tape, Cole refreshingly dives into new styles of rap while showcasing his hard-hitting, skillful lyricism to remind listeners of how much work he has put in to take his place at the top of the rap game.
As with the rest of his discography, it’s no surprise that Cole’s lyrical genius and production quality continue to shine throughout The Off-Season. With the first song, “95 . s o u t h,” Cole expertly uses his perfected lyrical skills to set a triumphant tone for the rest of the tracks as he boastfully raps about all his past accomplishments. His exaggerated bravado makes it almost humorous to listen to the victorious Cole as he lyrically parades alongside a booming, triumphant beat, rapping, “This sh*t too easy for me now, / N****, Cole been goin’ plat’ since back when CDs was around.”
While the constant boasts through witty one-liners eventually become slightly repetitive midway through the album, Cole makes up for it by satisfyingly directing his compelling narrative style of rapping to speak on pressing social justice issues. Most notably on “i n t e r l u d e,” Cole speaks of gun violence, rapping, “Just last week, seen yo’ mama weep / Crying ‘cause she don’t wan’ bury your brother / The blood leaks while the EMTs / Gotta carry her baby like surrogate mothers.” To hear Cole’s captivating storytelling as he raps is simultaneously impactful and enjoyable, and Cole’s skillful lyricism of his first-hand experiences also helps listeners develop a better picture of the detrimental effects of gangs and gun violence. Throughout the album, it’s encouraging to see Cole continue to use his massive platform to bring about awareness of these pressing societal issues.
As Cole’s crafty songwriting takes him far, his exploration into other, more melodic styles of music, such as trap, also brings a refreshing new perspective to his traditional rap style and makes for an even more impressive album. Most notably in the second track, “a m a r i,” Cole deviates from his usual hard-hitting rap and innovatively experiments with sing-song vocals — this pays off in one of the best songs on the album, “m y . l i f e,” where the dynamic combination of soul and Cole’s raw, lively vocals, as well as guest features from 21 Savage and Morray work in tandem to produce one of Cole’s best works.
Watch the official music video for “a m a r i” here.
However, in other songs, such as “p r i d e . i s . t h e . d e v i l,” where his melodic voice misses its mark and comes off as slightly too mumbly, his impressive list of guest features continues and helps recover the flow. Artists such as Lil Baby, Bas, and 6LACK offer their expertise in trap and R&B to keep the tracks moving forward despite the slightly disappointing performance from Cole. Guest feature Bas is an especially noteworthy addition who compliments Cole extremely well — Bas’ angelic, soulful vocal additions to Cole’s flow on the closing track “ h u n g e r . o n . h i l l s i d e,” to create a fitting, emotional, and incredibly satisfying end to an exceptional album.
Despite some tracks where his singing occasionally falls short, Cole’s The Off-Season is a lyrically formidable album that was well worth the three-year wait. Cole delivers some of his best work through the 12 tracks and showcases his expert storytelling, impactful messages, impressive features, and innovative vocals With The Off-Season, Cole leaves listeners hyped for more and successfully secures his legacy as one of this generation’s greatest rappers.
Cover image by A&E Editor Megh Basu