It can be easy to let the talents of one rapper surpass another. After all, hip-hop is now one of the highest contributors to your local radio station and, with that comes an endless ream of rappers who take on the airwaves with dukes up and the odd bob and weave. But while there are contenders upon contenders upon contenders ready to battle it out, everybody knows when a real king walks into the ring. J Cole has just dropped his sixth album, The Off-Season, let go of his robe and started marauding the square circle, ready for his next victim.
The truth is, a lot has changed since Cole dropped 2018’s KOD. The world is still in the grips of a global pandemic, and the year prior is one we’d probably all like to forget. But while the world feels like it has been flipped upside down, Cole is still on top. Few artists have seen as much hype and excitement surrounding their release as the North Carolina rapper’s latest LP, and, for that reason, The Off-Season feels like a return to normality.
A return to cultured beats from Timbaland, Boi-1da, T-Minus and Frank Dukes — who all work to make this one of the smoothest releases in years. It’s a return to Cole’s unique and cultivated delivery, never feeling forced or rushed but far removed from laboured or mumbled. It’s also, perhaps most importantly, a return to Cole proving that he is, without question, one of the most gifted lyricists around right now. Check out his recent LA Sneakers freestyle for further proof.
If you’ve not been paying attention and this is, somehow, your first introduction to the work of J Cole then sit back and get ready for a masterclass. Resolute with the kind of beats that few artists can even approach, let alone manipulate like the Last Airbender, the record shows the best and brightest of Cole. Opener ’95 South’ shows not only Cole’s scything sense of wit “look how everybody clapping when your 30-song album do a measly hundred thou” but also his careful curation of collaborators, inviting Cam’ron for a searing assist.
‘Amari’ takes some classical guitar work into a brand new century as the beat drops and Cole flows into overdrive, paying homage to a southern drawl that rarely leaves his side. There are also moments, as with every Cole record, where the rapper opens himself up and allows his beating heart the chance to lay its own rhythm, ‘My Life’ and ‘Let Go My Hand’ providing a reprieve from the complete control Cole exerts over the record.
That may seem like a trivial assessment. Of course, all rappers and artists should be in control of their album but the truth is a little further removed. The reality is, some artists allow their records to be a part of their iconography. They’re happy to pick up sales, sell concert tickets and make some stacks without really being involved with the artistic push. However, it’s the kind of integrity that J Cole has in spades on The Off-Season.
It allows the nuances of Cole’s character to emerge, all with the authenticity of a true great. ‘Punchin’ the Clock’ offers a delicate and delicious balance of fire-breathing rhymes and Cole’s often-enlightened perspective. Meanwhile, tracks like ‘100 Mil’ and ‘The Climb Back’ offer combinations on how to succeed as a heavyweight.
There isn’t much to dislike about the record. In fact, the only thing I can pick out that turns me off the LP is that it is too short, but, in truth, even that would be harsh criticism. The reality is that the album is 12 rounds of potent and pure unbridled artistry. Like watching Muhammad Ali dance his way across the ring, guiding himself around the vicious world in front of him, delivering bloody noses and fat lips at will and never truly settling in one place except greatness.
Is J Cole the GOAT? That debate will rage on for a few more years. But he is understandably the undisputed heavyweight champion of the hip hop world right now, The Off-Season is where this champion shines.