Review: “The Off-Season” is J Cole’s Greatest Teaser

The way J Cole markets his music is something I’ve always appreciated. Not one for flashy stunts or controversy bait (well…most of the time anyway), the North Carolina rapper has always centered the narrative of his career around the music. Using songs to promote more songs as seen since his Yours Truly series and the many loosies he’s dropped in between records.

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That’s why his announcement of The Fall Off at the end of K.O.D. comes as such a surprise. Seemingly his final album, Cole leaving music behind means that it would effectively mark the end of J Cole the celebrity as we know it. In an Instagram post earlier this year, he gave fans a peek that how The Fall Off‘s rollout would look – kicking things off with an appetiser of solo music in The Off-Season and then a mystery project titled It’s A Boy.

True to its name, The Off-Season sets out to do what its name suggests – to improve his craft in preparation for the main event. At 12 tracks and just under 40 minutes, there’s barely any space for filler and Cole makes apt use of each song to prove to listeners that, from a technical standpoint, he can still recapture past highs and remain as hungry as he’s ever been.

Enlisting help from the likes of Timbaland, Boi-1da, T-Minus and more, the album sounds much more ‘current’ than the rest of his discography, with trap and modern rap influences having a heavy presence throughout. After the relatively mild and, admittedly, boring production from Cole himself on 4 Your Eyez Only and K.O.D, the infectiously energetic beats here are a welcome fresh air that makes Off-Season more enticing to listen to.

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On the other hand, I can’t help but feel that this sound severely limits the longevity of the record. Like some of the best mixtapes of the past 2 decades (Lil Wayne’s Dedication series and Cole’s own The Warm Up) that repurpose other rappers’ beats as their own, The Off-Season elicits a similar feeling. Other than “p r i d e…” with Lil Baby that has an almost identical beat to Aminé’s “Can’t Decide”, the album heavily emulates the sounds its trap contemporaries. As if J Cole is trying to prove himself over current production to show that he can still keep up with trends while maintaining the stellar quality of his rapping.

It sounds incredible now, but I can’t help but feel it wouldn’t age as gracefully as Born Sinner or 2014 Forest Hills Drive (his best albums in my opinion). Yet, again, like its name implies, plays you make while readying yourself up for the big game don’t need to be everlasting. Cole proving that he’s more than capable of standing toe-to-toe with trap heavyweight features 21 Savage and Lil Baby is exactly what will generate peak amounts of hype for The Fall Off.

Speaking of features, I wrote all about how Cole’s hiding of them greatly increased the enjoyment of the record. Though in short, everyone came with their A-game.

It makes sense that Off-Season lacks a thematic direction like his previous 2 records since it doesn’t need to have one. Outside of a few key tracks, braggadocio is the name of the game here. For better and for worse, Cole really delivers on that with quotable after quotable after quotable. Not all of them stick, but as a whole it does make the album more fun to listen to when waiting in anticipation for the next bar to land.

Also on a more amusing note, my biggest gripe with J Cole’s music has always been the lackluster hooks and choruses, especially so when they’re performed by Cole himself. So picture my reaction when I realised he threw song structure out the window and filled the album with mostly verses and no choruses – giving it a more freestyle-like quality that gives the record brevity.

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Though, I’m still not a huge fan of the choruses/hooks on songs that do have them. Nearly all of them fail to have a distinctly memorable quality, often sucking out the energy that Cole’s rapping generated and bringing the song’s momentum to a standstill. However, it’s not an issue that occurs very often.

Final Verdict

The Off-Season isn’t J Cole’s best but it does come close. It’s easily his most enjoyable project in years and one that I can see myself going back to often. Though it’s hard to gauge how this album will be received once The Fall Off drops, one thing for certain is that I’m going to enjoy this album as much as I can till then.

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Based in Melbourne and Malaysia. Jensen is a part-time journalist and full-time music fan.

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