How does a star exit the stage gracefully? Rare is it to leave on one’s own terms, legacy intact, remembered in retirement. The more common route is perhaps to fade into obscurity with a constellation of diminishing successes. Ostensibly conscious of this trajectory, J. Cole appears to have already mapped out his own departure. In an Instagram post from late December of last year, the superstar rapper offered a simple list of “The Fall Off Era”: a Sharpied track that traces his bracing run of guest feature verses over the last couple years through what he suggest will be his final record, the yet-to-come “The Fall Off.”
Cole’s new record, “The Off-Season,” sits in the midway point of his exit plan, and also reads as a turning point. Stripped down to an at once polished and grimy mixture of soul samples, seizuring trap hi-hats and boom-bap drums, Cole offers, amid some moments of grave contemplation, a kind of mixtape-energy record of lyrical exercises and bangers. In its looseness, the album — his most economical and wholly consistent one thus far — feels like a serrated jolt, a brazen and convincing statement from the rapper of his all-time status as an MC.
The tone of “The Off-Season,” boasting the assurance and contemplation of a now-seasoned veteran, can feel both appropriate and surprising. In the last few years, Cole, secure in his cemented status as one of the Big Three of his rap generation alongside Drake and Kendrick Lamar, has rather overtly cast himself as an elder statesman. His last album, “KOD” — a somewhat admirable but often misguided and moralistic record — centered around his lamentations over the vices (money, drugs, sex) corrupting the youth, and of the wayward new generation of rappers helping to peddle these poisons. Not long after, he played guidance counselor to one of these rappers, Lil Pump, on a couch for an hour. On “Middle Child,” his highest-charting song to date from 2019, he did much of the same, praising the rapper greats that preceded him while worrying for the young ones following behind him.
“The Off-Season” contains that strain of a wiser star, but it only takes the outstanding opener, “95.south,” to disavow us of any notion of fatherly compassion. The song, featuring a gruff introduction from rapper Cam’ron and an outro sample from Lil Jon, has a glorious kind of pitbull grandiosity to both its production and to Cole’s scoffing cockiness.
It is also a proper introduction to a distinctly new shift in Cole’s vision here. In the past, sentimental pianos and instrumentals have opened his albums, somber gestures toward the supposedly deeper, real subject matter to come. Indeed, Cole’s earnestness has always been both the key to his success and his greatest artistic fault. His projects are undergirded by a thoughtfulness that can be clumsy and heavy-handed, in individual bars and songs, and in the concept album framework of his records (the deadly sins of “Born Sinner”; the trajectory of his life on “2014 Forest Hills Drive”; the kids-on-drugs and its other acronyms of “KOD”). It’s this same quality that also make him come across to many as an inspiring, reflective everyman in a way that has catapulted him to the top of rap for the last several years.
What perhaps makes “The Off-Season” shine the most is it shedding of this self-serious quality. “My.life” and “Applying.pressure” are simply playful statements of Cole’s separation from other rappers. The latter features an overly long, rambling rant expressing as much, while the former includes a stellar surprise verse from 21 Savage; the existence of features (Lil Baby also offers a standout appearance on “Pride.is.the.devil”), which Cole completely abandoned for the last three albums, is also a marker of the freer attitude here.
Meanwhile, “Punchin.the.clock” and “100.mil” reflect the relentless attitude that has helped maintained his place in hip-hop. The title of the album itself is, according to Cole, a reference to the period — similar to one that inspired his breakout mixtape “The Warm Up” — where one might consciously shirk complacency and direct energy toward honing one’s craft. This embodies much of the energy on “The Off-Season”: consistently mean-mugging flows that come off as a self-test of form for Cole. He still delivers occasional lines with eye-rolling punchlines (“Know it’s on sight when I see you, I’m workin’ at Squarespace”) but on an album focused on bars and brags, they fit more into the texture than past offenses.
There are still potent moments of reflection, particularly in the album’s second half. “Interlude” and “The.climb.back” evoke haunting impressionistic images of bloody summers and the violent circumstances that take Black lives. Similarly, “Close,” detailing his relationship with a tragic man he once knew well, contains some of his most vivid writing ever; while much shorter, it contains the narrative ambition of the final, title track of “4 Your Eyez Only,” arguably one of Cole’s best songs ever. These moments hit harder because Cole lets them exist as moments — tightly written images and scenes rather than the overwrought conceptual songs that he has historically gravitated toward.
Particularly as hip-hop continues to transform as the new pop, Cole, a steadfast rap traditionalist now a good decade into his career, might appear as a relic (for some fans, the generation-war of his “1985” read as this very truth). On “The Off-Season,” he is burnishing a reputation as a lingering titan. If “The Off-Season” is Cole’s first record of The Fall Off Era, he appears far from ready to bow out, nor should he be.