The Off-Season is yet another legacy-minded and self-satisfied cornball effort from J. Cole.
J. Cole is, somewhat inexplicably, really popular amongst hip-hop fans — and just about nobody else. He garners little critical praise from most music publications, and generates scant attention on a grander cultural scale, but if you ask any one of his die-hard stans where his artistic status lands at this given moment in time, they would immediately try to sell you on the narrative that Jermaine Lamarr Cole is every bit the trend-setter that Kendrick Lamar or Drake are. (A long-rumored collaborative album between Cole and Lamar, one that will probably never materialize, has helped to continue these ridiculous comparisons.) What they would argue is that Cole is the real deal, that he doesn’t chase trends or use gimmicks to sell his music, that his relatively bare-bones and unflashy approach to his craft validates his placement within the pantheon. Thing is, Cole is not much more than a bunch of musical stunts stitched together under the guise of authenticity: There’s the non-stop gloating about having no features, his fervent compulsion towards letting every listener know how much “work” he puts in, the elitist talking-down to Gen-Z — presumably because they don’t give him the respect he believes he deserves. He presents himself as a legend in the making, a truth-teller who’s enlightened beyond his years; the actual music he makes tells a plainer story.
At this point in Cole’s storied career, you either accept his version of history or have found new objects of scorn; he’s been sticking with the same tired formula for four album cycles now, and shows little sign of breaking out of the tight confines he’s trapped himself in. You call that complacency, Cole calls it mastering his abilities; again, you either see this shtick as endearing or something of a ruse. His latest album, The Off-Season, does little to change any of these perceptions — except this time, Cole positions himself as better than everyone else because, as he often reminds you, he’s putting in the time while most other rappers his age are becoming comfortable, an irony he seems to have completely missed. He sounds eager to please, instead of simply conceited, which makes this a bit more bearable than his last project, but this is ultimately just another exercise in the lame self-mythologizing he loves to engage in. He’s even hinted that this might be the second to last album he’s ever going to record, all with the same type of pompous aggrandizement displayed by any other rapper before him who’s tried to retire early. The album practically requires that you go in with a healthy amount of context up to this point, since Cole seems virtually incapable of releasing any music outside of a carefully constructed world of self-referential callbacks — a feedback loop certifying its own greatness.
But what about Cole is actually great? He’s not a talented lyricist, evinced time and time again by the many, many corny punchlines he seems incapable of foregoing (he’s got one here about putting an M on your head like Luigi’s brother) or by his penchant for mocking others’ perceived wealth while also wanting to come off as a regular dude (as he disingenuously puts it, he’d be willing to dignify other MCs if they kept it honest about their broke bank statements as “that’s a perspective I respect because it’s real”). In terms of his overall game plan, he’s an insular talent — he seems far more concerned with cementing his legacy than with just about anything else productive — which is fully revealed on “Let Go My Hand,” where a song dedicated to his adolescent son maturing turns into tell-all involving a physical altercation he got in with Diddy, like he’s closing out a chapter of history that nobody but himself seems concerned about. He’s not even particularly wise, and often comes off as relatively conservative on most social issues — all of his enemies are addressed with feminine language i.e., alleging they’re on their period; he’s says he’s gonna teach his son how to fight so he doesn’t grow up to be a “bitch”; he sides with Hopsin by portraying single mothers fighting for child custody as conniving skanks who want to break up families — which, for a rapper who’s appeal lives and dies by his supposed acumen, is telling enough of his limited capacities. But The Off-Season isn’t here to win over any non-believers or do anything truly exciting; Cole has proven before that he feels entitled to whatever acclaim he may receive, and here, once again, is willing to reap whatever meager rewards he’s supposedly sowed.
Published as part of Album Roundup — May 2021 | Part 1.