When I first thought about covering The Off-Season, I was ready to give it a prejudicially glowing review. I was going to wax eloquent about Cole’s inspiration, motivation, and skill. However, the more I listened, the more I had to honestly ask myself: Is The Off-Season really this good? Is it really a classic album? Or am I simply diving into the swirling whirlpool of excitement that accompanies one of the most talented, controversial, trendsetting hip hop artists of my generation?
While Cole’s words offer hope in a stylistically captivating way, they also provide direction for an oftentimes unfathered, undisciplined generation.My intuition informs me it is perhaps the latter reasoning. It might be because Cole has achieved superior status as an artist. When artists like J. Cole garners widespread respect for a masterpiece—or a collection of masterpieces, like 2014 Forest Hills Drive, 4 Your Eyez Only, and KOD—everything they create from then on can be mistakenly assumed as instant classics. But when those masterpieces are built on stories of economic, emotional, and psychological triumph and the artist has then “made it,” they can lose a bit of their relatability to commonfolk.
For instance, Cole’s opening lines for the album opener “95. South”—“This s*** too easy for me now / N***a Cole been goin’ plat’ since back when CDs was around”—are lyrics you might hear from any other mediocre artist. Though the lyric is true, these types of flexes throughout The Off-Season can come off a bit lazy for an artist of his caliber. Yes, braggadocio is often a key ingredient of rap, but Cole usually presents himself above those elementary elements, which leaves much to be desired from the self-proclaimed “Middle Child” of hip hop at times in The Off-Season.
If you’re an avid J. Cole fan, that previous paragraph is probably drawing great ire and agitation. For such reasons as these, J. Cole is a naturally polarizing artist. Fans by and large love him and virtually every project, single, or idea he’s ever made public, which is why The Off-Season is an instant classic in their perspective of his discography. Critics, on the other hand, critique Cole and his music for the same reasons fans love him. It seems their desire is for fans to interact with the multi-platinum selling artist as a man not above reproach. Everything he touches doesn’t turn to gold, so stop treating him and his music as though it does, in their opinion.
Cole’s candidness to call out what or who he sees wrong with society (including himself) is usually the kindle that draws fiery reproach from the critics. For instance, his not-so-subtle rebuke of Kanye West (among other rappers) spoke for the many who were growing tired and confused of West’s antics. Cole’s last album, KOD, was all about the realities of addiction. He rapped candidly about his own addictions, the American drug-use culture, and the reasons why people get addicted. And his single “Snow on tha Bluff”—a rebuke of socialist social media activist Noname—drew the most widespread (and perhaps deserved) beratement for Cole’s insistence that she change the tone of her rhetoric toward Black men in the fight for equal rights.
Cole’s insights and remedies are taken as condescending and off-putting to a culture that is not always necessarily looking for answers or fixes. On the other hand, enthusiasts hang to every fragment (and dangling participle) he rhymes.
Though this might not be Cole’s best album, the 36-year-old still maintains and exhibits a credible and masterful lyrical delivery, scheme, and overall execution that is top-tier among his industry peers. After stepping away from the album for a while, then listening again, I found that my deliberations had more to do with the value of creating and consuming art in general, even if it isn’t the best we’ve ever seen or heard. But why hold on to or continue listening to perceptibly lesser works of art—specifically hip hop? For fans, critics, and consumers of hip hop, we don’t throw out inferior albums like The Off-Season, because I believe we subconsciously understand that the auxiliary elements of these lesser works contain just as much social utility as they do pure auditory aesthetic. In his latest book Terraform, hip hop artist/poet Propaganda asks in his poem “Is It Any Less Beautiful?”: “Even if it is symbolic / Is it any less beautiful? Whether real or metaphor / Is it any less beautiful?” Propaganda notes elsewhere in the book, “When I say stories, I mean what does a story invoke in a person that brings forward the humanity necessary for a more livable world?” Good social value doesn’t automatically make for good art; some art is beautiful but has little social value practically. Hip hop, however, communicates an allure that is inextricably linked to (though not the same as) its social utility.
And therein lies the value of creating art, even if those works of art aren’t the sometimes over-hyped “classic” titles that may first come to mind. Any time a work of art like The Off-Season is created, it sparks in us a deeper sense of consciousness, encouraging us to pull back the curtain of wonder to consider the deeper meanings of ourselves, society, spirituality, and more. Why do I like this song so much? Is it Cole’s tone, inflection, rhyming patterns, the beat, context? Why does this album disappoint me? Even if you’re not a hip hop fan, your choice not even to assess the album reveals the value it has in creating a denser sense of self. Why do I not like hip hop? Are there biases I’ve created towards the genre? Is it because I do not understand the references in the lyrics? Art is always speaking to us, and The Off-Season is no different.
In any attempt to determine if The Off-Season is a classic album or just a mediocre project, it might be important to first determine if the hip hop elements are any good. Without overanalyzing each line, limerick, and stanza of every verse on The Off-Season, let’s examine the first four lines from the fourth track, “Applying Pressure,” and see how Cole’s skillset in the division of rhythm and rhyming holds up (emphasis mine):
Uh, applying pressure
Started my grind where crime festers
And now it’s showing like they in they second trimesters
That’s why when n****s throw a shot or two online
I pay no mind to their benign gestures.
Those are just the first four lines of one song and it may not seem like much, but notice the precision in his rhyming pattern: ab/aaab/ab/aaaab. Cole keeps up this kind of rhyming with even more acrobatic rhyme patterns throughout the album. It would be easy to underestimate the skill it takes to execute these types of rhyme patterns while communicating content that’s worth listening to (more on that later).
For however difficult it is to master the lyrical skills mentioned above, content—what is rapped—is still key. J. Cole’s content is where he often thrives and separates himself from the rest of mainstream rap artists. This is also why hip hop fans and critics pay attention when Cole raps. What’s he going to say that’s offensive this time? What wisdom might he share? Who’s he going to try preaching to this time? Keeping listeners on the edge of their seats, hungry for rhythmic repartees, metered with substantive intonations—and then delivering, is subjectively worthy of the labeled prestige associated with “greatness.” But, does Cole deliver consumable content with The Off-Season?
In his mini-documentary Applying Pressure: The Off-Season Documentary, he testifies that he’s reached a pinnacle in the hip hop industry. As with many who have seemingly reached their prime—in any industry—the temptation is to sit back and enjoy the spoils of all you’ve accomplished. But in a King Solomon-esque observation of his life, Cole questions if he’s okay with simply living off of his name. “One more time before I leave, before I feel like I’m fulfilled in this game,” Cole explains to rapper 21 Savage who is featured on “My . Life,” “let me try to reach new heights from a skill-level standpoint.”
Cole executes this skill by mixing life lessons and stories with his content. On the track “Punchin’ . The . Clock,” Cole raps about the environment he grew up in:
The s**t pop off, I learned to duck under the canopy
Till it cool off, they murked a n***a right in front of me
Told him to come off his chain for tryna floss
Died over a cross just like the start of Christianity.
The pain and trauma of constantly being surrounded by death due to the greed and pride of others gives someone like Cole a unique perspective of Christianity—one that can complicate our common and sometimes simplistic understandings of Christianity associated with sinfulness, lowliness, and death.
Indeed, Cole dedicates a whole track to the subject of pride with his song “Pride . Is . The . Devil.” Singing a truth many can readily agree with, “Pride is the devil / Think it got a hold on me,” Cole confesses in the chorus he is not immune from the destructive effects of pride. He then goes on to mention numerous ways pride subtly masks our insecurities, causing a myriad of conflicts:
Pride make a n***a act way harder than he really be
Pride hide the shame when city cut off all utilities
Pride hide the pain of growing up inhaling poverty . . .
Make a baby mama make s*** harder than it gotta be
Make you have to take the b***h to see your prodigy . . .
Slowly realizing what the root of all my problems be
It got me feeling different when somebody say they proud of me.
From family breakups to dealing with poverty, and much more, Cole’s assessment of humanity’s heart-rooted issues, coupled with an honest and open examination of his own pride, offers a unique sermon to the streets and fans who may be reluctant to step foot in a church building.
Self-determination and pride aren’t sustainable attributes for one to thrive on for an entire lifetime. The weight of our pride will inevitably crush us, leading us to fulfill the old adage that “hurt people hurt people.” And to make this point, Cole addresses the violence that still too often plagues communities across the world in his songs “Interlude” and “The . Climb . Back.”
Block hot, n***a burnin’ up the street
Shots poppin’ and we heard it up the street
It’s a war, n***a runnin’ up the score Jesus said that you should turn the other cheek
What’s this n***as gettin’ murdered every week?
Dead bodies, smell the odor in the street . . .
Summertime bring the coldest winter breeze
Hella blues like the Rollin’ ’60s
Christ went to heaven age thirty-three
And so did Pimp-C and so did Nipsey.
In the face of the continuous murderous calamity, Cole tries appealing to what he sees as a remedy for all the violence: Christ.
Regardless of the circumstances surrounding death, it seems Cole is trying to communicate that in Christ there is hope in the face of all this tragedy. And this is the type of content that turns some listeners away. But if his lyrics are heeded, there’s much wisdom and life to gain from his words.
However, the content is plain for enthusiasts and nitpickers: distress, misery, and pain caused by death will remain present with us, but that fact doesn’t have to equate to eternal mourning. No matter if one is murdered while nobly and actively working to invest in one’s communities like Nipsey Hussle, dies of an accidental overdose like Pimp C, or dies on a cross at the hands of religious and political elites to save the world like Christ, Cole’s hope is to paint a picture of redemption with his words—which is why it seems he ends “Interlude” with an elucidation of all three dying and going to heaven at the young age of 33.
Whether or not the content of Cole’s lyrics resonates with listeners will remain a subjective challenge. But where and to whom he aims those words—his art—can solidify if The Off-Season is an okay or great album. While Cole’s words offer hope in a stylistically captivating way, they also provide direction for an oftentimes unfathered, undisciplined generation. And this is the beauty of art, even if it is subpar for one’s personal taste.
Truth be told, there’s no concrete formula to determine whether The Off-Season is a great album for J. Cole or not. I think all of us must agree with critics that not everything Cole creates musically is gold-standard (to that, the most sincere fan might readily rebut, “Maybe so. But it does turn platinum”). The Off-Season might just be an “okay” album for some fans’ standards and that’s okay. But if we take into account The Off-Season’s purpose as a work of art, it wouldn’t be an overstatement to categorize it as great.