Poll J. Cole fans on his best album and the majority answer will be his third, 2014 Forest Hills Drive. (Open it up to mixtapes, and Friday Night Lights is probably the clear winner.) The third album is often a pivotal point for mainstream rappers: the moment where they either lock themselves into a successful lane or declare themselves a generational talent who’s not just here to stay, but to transcend. Kanye pushed himself to a self-described “stadium status” sound on Graduation. Jay-Z finally figured out how to master radio but stay street on Hard Knock Life. Drake distilled his R&B tenderness, pop sensibilities and bro-rap bars into his most concise, assured effort to date on Nothing Was the Same.
As for Cole, after five years of indulging in the superficial highs and inevitable lows of the music industry, he returned to his roots (the album title is his childhood home address) and made a dynamic project that loosely chronicled his life to that point. The bars were sharper, beats harder (even the oft-ridiculed “Wet Dreamz” objectively knocks), and the radio hits were organic, with no frills, flashy features or trend-chasing sounds.
FHD’s success secured Cole a fanbase large and loyal enough to propel him to No. 1 releases and sold-out arena tours without having to play the industry game, and the albums that followed indulged that luxury a little too heavily. Heady concepts (4 Your Eyez Only is written from the perspective of a slain friend to his daughter; KOD grapples with addiction both experienced and in general) clashed with banal confessionals. Who can forget “Foldin Clothes,” wherein Cole basks in domestication as exemplified by drinking almond milk and, yes, folding laundry with his wife?There are career-high gems scattered across these projects, no doubt, but with a limited pool of producers outside of himself and nary a feature, there’s little pushing the music from feeling too familiar.
The Off-Season is a thrilling return to well-rounded form from the first seconds, when a Diplomats-evoking thunderous beat actually gives way to Killa Cam’ron himself coaching Cole to talk his shit. Introspection is cool and all, but “Cole been goin’ plat’ since back when CDs was around/What you sold, I tripled that, I can’t believe these fuckin’ clowns’/Look how everybody clappin’ when your thirty-song album do a/measly hundred thou’” is the fly talk we’ve never really gotten from him before.
That intro sets the tone for the rest of the project. 21 Savage shows up for “My Life,” a banging companion to “A Lot,” while Lil Baby continues his crime spree of bodying rappers on their own song on “Pride Is the Devil.” And where the last few Cole albums featured songs best suited for reflective Sunday drives, a production roster of Boi-1da, Timbaland, T-Minus and DJ Dahi yields heaters you can cue up on a Friday night as well.
Cole has described the theme of this album and the grand “Fall Off era” it is but a part of as bucking complacency (The Fall Off is an album he’s been working on for years and envisions as his last as an “active” competitor). The title is a nod to the training and drills that go into adding to your game before the season. (This week, Cole also announced out of nowhere that he will join the Basketball Africa League’s Rwanda Patriots to play three-to-six games.) That’s all well and good, but in the here and now, The Off-Season is a welcome reminder that Cole still knows how to play, and well. No big concepts, no off-putting isolation this time around. Just an A-list rap album with tight punchlines and precision verses—from a technical standpoint, there’s simply no argument that this is the sharpest and most focused he’s ever sounded to date—incorporating some of the best voices and minds around at the moment with nary a skip. There may not be a track as emotionally raw as “Love Yourz,” but track-for-track, this is the most consistent project he’s put out.
“Applying Pressure” is the thesis statement. Jermaine skates for nearly two minutes straight like he’s recording an LA Leakers freestyle instead of an album cut, then spends the last 45 seconds sneering like he just dropped 40 on someone’s head at the neighborhood court: “I gotta flex sometimes because n-ggas just try to act like you just not that motherfuckin’ n-gga…n-ggas will look you dead in your face and really act like you don’t do it to the level that you do it. That’s why sometimes you gotta come through and just do it at the level that you do it in front of every n-gga face.” Message received!