For over a decade, J. Cole has rapped as the enlightened everyman, navigating issues of race, class, and gender like a thoughtful jock. His latest release, The Off-Season, finds him pondering inventive gun violence prevention measures one moment, and lobbing sexist locker-room insults the next (“Check your genitalia, pussy-niggas bleedin’ on yourself,” he raps on “95.South”). Still, the album is generally absent the overt social critiques that have built his reputation as a rapper of substance.
Last summer, on “Snow on tha Bluff,” his last lengthy engagement with ideas of Black liberation, he began by disputing that reputation: “Niggas be thinkin’ I’m deep, intelligent, fooled by my college degree/My IQ is average, there’s a young lady out there, she way smarter than me.” From there, the song becomes a well-intentioned but wildly insecure and paternalistic confrontation of the rapper Noname, likely a response to tweets in which she questioned her peers’ participation in the moment’s anti-racist movement. Noname, who has spent the last couple of years publicly learning and sharing anti-capitalist, anti-racist, and anti-imperialst ideas, responded with “Song 33,” a one-minute eviceration of his tone-policing with reminders of the tragedies people across the country were rectifying. After, in a series of tweets, Cole reiterated his incapacity to act as a thought leader: “a nigga like me just be rapping,” he relented.
His next songs came and went with much less fanfare, a two-track EP announced as the first singles from his upcoming album, The Fall Off. Instead came The Off-Season. The album was preceded by a short documentary on the rapper’s mindstate while making the music. The film isn’t particularly revelatory, but indicates that Cole was prioritizing the technical proficiency of The Off-Season’s songs over the construction of an arc between them. “Let me try to reach new heights from a skill level standpoint,” he says in the doc. In turn, the album is as highly proficient and non-revealing as the documentary foreshadows. Over a tight twelve tracks of nimble songwriting and outstanding composition, J. Cole continues to muse on the themes weaved throughout his discography: life and death, success and lack thereof, the divine and the mortal. He does this with personal and interpersonal anecdotes that are interesting but safe, as he leans into his passion for rap and sport and away from his predilection for social commentary.
Musicality drives The Off-Season, where Cole croons, hollers, and spits through a tangle of satisfying melodies and complex rhyme schemes. In standouts like “Amari,” “My.Life,” and “100.Mil,’ ” there’s drama and power as he alternates between agile rapping and serious singing. He harmonizes with fellow Fayetteville, North Carolina native Morray on “My.Life,” and enlists Dreamville veteran Bas — an impressive rhymer himself — as a singer in two places, where his performances are careful and calming. Dead center, “100.Mil’ ” feels like the thesis of Cole’s efforts here. He dances through a handful of flows in just one verse, sounding like he’s bounding through drills on the court. “How come a nigga ain’t enter his prime? Still gettin’ better after all this time,” he boasts. He’s right. Cole has become a top-tier composer, marrying rhythmic acuity with lyrical dynamism.
There are quick, vivid bursts of imagery scattered throughout The Off-Season, moments in which he tells stories without laboring over them. On “Close,” Cole bobs and weaves in and out of vignettes of his life and that of a friend who is ultimately slain, returning to the titular word as like a home base. He gives visceral exposition on “Interlude,” where he raps about EMTs carrying a woman’s child away from her “like surrogate mothers” in the unbearable southern summer heat. Together, Cole’s tales paint a picture of himself as a survivor who has traded in remorse for gratitude. He refers to his fear of death in the past tense on “Let.Go.My.Hand,” says, “I’m thankful ’cause I made it past my thirties, no one murdered me,” on “Pride.is.the.Devil,” and sets out to celebrate the life of a dead friend on “The.Climb.Back.” Making it out of Fayetteville used to torment Cole; now it gives his life a sense of meaning. “That’s why when niggas throw a shot or two online, I pay no mind to their benign gestures,” he raps on “Applying.Pressure.”
But with The Off-Season, Cole has made an album nearly devoid of spaces for the kind of rigorous critique that “Snow on tha Bluff” warranted, because he doesn’t offer thoughts that are new, challenging, or socio-politically charged. The rapper, who admittedly “hasn’t done a lot of reading” instead talks about what he knows best — his own life — with undeniable acumen as a lyricist. There is an uncomfortable finger-wagging at broke people hating on millionaires on “Applying.Pressure,” but he does so in the context of the jealousy he once harbored. The album’s biggest revelation comes with “Let.Go.My.Hand.” where J. Cole admits that he once had a physical altercation with Diddy, as was rumoured. The idea of any tension between them is quickly rectified when Diddy shows up on the outro.
After a year of social and political upheaval, it’s notable that Cole retreated into himself, setting out to be the greatest rapper and a professional baller rather than a voice of reason. That’s not a bad thing, per se — maybe it leaves space for listeners to engage more deeply with performers who have stronger ideas about race, class, and society, like a Noname. But when Cole raps that he “can’t let the fame scare me off from speaking candidly,” on “Punchin’.The.Clock,” it feels like it might have.