J. Cole – ‘The Off-Season’ review: technical brilliance that’s not built for the mainstream

The North Carolina rapper eschews the bombast of old to focus on quietly dazzling wordplay, drawing the same meticulousness from his guest artists

When you talk about who’s the greatest rapper alive right now, J. Cole‘s name usually comes up. Achieving huge status after his multi-Platinum sleeper hit ‘2014 Forest Drive’, the 36-year-old became famous for his consistently astute social observations and being Jay-Z’s protégé. However, he’s switched it up for what he’s hinted might be his final album before he retires from rap; ‘The Off-Season’ is more subdued and self-reflective than his previous work.

Cole dissed so-called ‘mumble’ rappers on 2018 album ‘KOD’, yet ‘m y. l i f e’ is a sombre remake of ‘A Lot’, his colossal Billboard hit with Atlantan superstar 21 Savage’s, and on ‘p r i d e. i s. t h e. d e v i l’ he expertly goes toe-to-toe with Lil Baby. The latter should prove to naysayers that Baby actually can rap well, rather than being carried by melodies. Dropping lines like “All my pride gone, had to lose it all then I got rich… I’m staying hella focused and I can’t forget the bigger picture”, he proves that he knows a thing or two about one-liners.

There’s a lot to live up to here – Cole’s last album-length project with his Dreamville Records roster, 2019’s ‘Revenge of The Dreamers III’, was Grammy nominated – and, luckily, this is a great album if you’re looking for straight bars. Usually, J.Cole might simplify his verses or pick groovier beats to give us a radio hit, but not this time – instead he raps circles around us and really shows off his pen. To hell with mainstream appeal! Look at ‘l e t. g o. o f f. m y. h a n d’, on which he handles his 2013 altercation with Bad Boy Records founder P.Diddy with maturity. Then the North Carolina star hit us double entendres and vivid imagery, proving why he’s still regarded as one of the best ever: “Ignorance is bliss and innocence is just ignorance before it’s introduced to currency and clips / Or bad licks that have a n***a servin’ three to six – shit”.

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If this is his send-off, it’s bittersweet one: either way, Cole seems to be drawing a line under his older rap style, which was all about showmanship and bombast. Non-conforming, ‘The Off-Season’ is a little bit off in places and its steadiness can be one-note, but it’s still a strong piece technically. You might not play this album every day, but it would still be a strong record for J. Cole to end on.

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