J. Cole & the Undying Hoop Dream

The Off-Season Album Review

Sports like basketball and football aren’t individualized bouts; it’s a team affair—a brotherhood/sisterhood. When one person falls, a squad member must do their best to pick their teammate up and strive onwards to victory. So, why would you ever try to carry the load yourself, especially when you don’t need to? 

In some form or fashion, that’s been the central question (and critique) of Fayetteville, North Carolina MC, J. Cole for over the past seven years. Since the release of 2014 Forest Hills Drive, Cole’s artistic decision of being the only artist, producing and rapping on his albums resulted in the infamous “Platinum, with no features” meme. Cole even doubled down on this stance as he released 4 Your Eyez Only in 2016 and KOD in 2018.

Image of the Dreamville roster during the Revenge of the Dreamers documentary.

It was a rapper’s delight: to be able to linguistically shit on your contemporaries and do it with the help of nobody but yourself? A GOAT-level flex. But by the time KOD came out, naysayers and some of his fans were growing annoyed by this creative route for Cole. Surprisingly though, the most prominent critic of this meme was none other than Cole himself. “I was loving it. I was like, ‘Word up – this is funny as hell,’ says J. Cole In conversation with GQ for the cover story in 2019. “But the second or third time, I was like alright, it’s almost embarrassing now. Like, alright, man y’all gonna make me put a feature on the album just so this shit can stop.”

This half-joking-half-serious statement led to some of Cole’s hardest verses in his career. His unrelenting string of features that he did throughout 2019 bled into 2020 as he murdered everything from the soulful collaborations with Ari Lennox on “Shea Butter Baby” to the trap-flavored banger with 21 Savage on “A Lot”. This relentless streak between the release of KOD and The Off-Season caused Cole to retrace his steps as an artist and tap into what exactly helped empower his passion for Hip-Hop, to begin with. 

Cole graces the cover of Basketball magazine, SLAM

“I thought about basketball, why I ain’t make it in basketball, nigga. I love to play. At this point, I’m 21 years old; I’m 22. And I’m like nigga why you aint make it in basketball?” says J. Cole in conversation with a studiously interested 21 Savage in his documentary/hype video aptly named Applying Pressure: The Off-Season. “‘Cause you wasn’t fucking working. You thought you’d be outside dribbling the fucking ball doing something. When really niggas was in the gym with trainers…like putting in work shooting a thousand shots a day, and yo dumbass over there thinking you doing something mimicking Iverson. So, I was like yo do you really wanna look back 10, 20 years from now with this music shit and be like the reason you ain’t make it in music was because you ain’t put in the work? And I was like fuck it and that’s where The Warm Up came from.”

So, with J. Cole’s latest offering, The Off-Season, we receive a direct reflection of this lengthy speech as Jermaine sets out to prove that he’s got nothing else to prove –and does so with a team behind him. Beginning with the Cam’ron-ad libbed “95 .south”, Cole sets the microphone ablaze as he detracts naysayers in a way that’s reminiscent of the snark and wit found on his youthful mixtapes from last decade; he mixes his unsigned hunger from The Come Up and The Warm Up mixtapes while bringing that Friday Night Lights intensity on the second half of the song. With bars like “I be staying out the way, but if the beef do come around, could put an M right on yo head, you Luigi brother now” and “Vivid memories, niggas start to squeeze, we duckin’ down, So many shells left on the ground, it make the Easter Bunny proud, I get up, dust my clothes off, sleep is the cousin of death, No plans to doze off, the streets, it don’t come with a ref’,” Cole demands his respect while effortlessly showing why he’s mentioned as one of the all-time greats. Keeping to the basketball theme, J. Cole sounds as confident as the captain of a squad ready to play in his last Finals appearance and is willing to leave it all on the court. 

Cole in the video for his song “a m a r i.”

This same hunger is echoed throughout the album like a war cry as Cole swims through various flows and cadences as he blends his earnest braggadocio with the talents of his many guest features. Penning songs about survival and his rise to fame (“amari”, “my .life”, “interlude”), pride and temptation (“pride. is . the. devil”, “close”), the time it takes to hone one’s craft (“punchin’. the. clock”, “100 . mill”), self doubt (“let. go. my. hand”), the rediscovery of a passion (“the . climb . back”), the perseverance of one’s self (“hunger .on. hillside”), and superficial lifestyles of his rap opponents (“applying .pressure”), each song shines with a 30-40 point performance from Cole and all-star performances from each of the guest features. Cam’ron doesn’t rap on his guest spot, but it’s that Harlem shit-talking that gets the listener hype for the visceral performance of Cole. Lil Baby and 21 Savage both hold their own and add an extra bit of flair of dazzle to “pride. is. the. devil.” and “my .life”, respectively, and the soulful crooning of Morray, Bas, and 6Lack all make for fresh changes of pace from Cole’s voice every few songs or so. This diversity in song material and coverage has allowed the vet to be seen as likable since his mixtape days and his debut album, Cole World: The Sideline Story. Unfortunately, one of Cole’s most significant strengths of putting up 70 points as the only artist on Forest Hills Drive was his greatest weakness on 4 Your Eyez Only, as his performance paled in comparison. To avoid a 4YEO blunder, Cole leaned into his collaborators’ skills and did a more well-rounded project than your typical Cole outing. 

Through The Off-Season, it appears that Cole has found that, while he can pull a Kobe and score 80 points every album by himself, it would make for a better product if he allows for the creative process of collaboration to take priority over flashy solo performance. Additionally, a great assist from other rappers and artists makes for a more enjoyable listening experience for the fans and the betterment of the project altogether. So, while The Off-Season isn’t perfect, it’s a return to form for the vet MC and, hopefully, this collaborative team effort/mindset will carry over to what many assume will be his last project; The Fall-Off.

LISTEN TO J.COLE ON THE SNEAKVIBING playlists. Exclusively on Apple Music + Spotify!

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