Review: J. Cole sums up the highs and lows of his rap career in The Off-Season, an album that commentates on the artist’s observances through his journey to rap success all while relating it to his favorite sport: basketball

By Mira Sripada (‘22)

(credit: YouTube)

J. Cole is an American rapper, singer, songwriter, and record producer. He is most recognized for his profound lyrics, which often comment on complex social issues. Cole was raised in Fayetteville, North Carolina where he draws much inspiration from in this album. Prior to The Off-Season, Cole debuted seven other albums/mixtapes: Cole World: The Sideline Story (2011), Born Sinner (2013), 2014 Forest Hills Drive (2014), Revenge of the Dreamers II (2015), 4 Your Eyez Only (2016), KOD (2018) and Revenge of the Dreamers III: Director’s Cut (2020). What’s more is that after being in the rap industry for over a decade, Cole has also collabed with other recognizable names like Drake, Jay-Z and 21 Savage. The Off-Season debuted on May 14, 2021 and marks J. Cole’s sixth studio album. 

Right away, it is clear that The Off-Season is not a musical album as much as it is a lyrical one. The rapper uses every song as a means of conveying a different side of his rap story and this means that listeners hear of J. Cole’s experiences with social injustices, drugs, fake friends and his family life. This album review will dissect a couple standout tracks which communicate these messages. 

First, the fifth song on the album, “p u n c h i n ‘ . t h e . c l o c k”, showcases what Cole believes are the parallels between the rap game and basketball. All basketball players go through what is called the “off-season”, where they endure months of training and conditioning to prepare for games. Cole sees this as similar to his journey to success, which took years of studying and analyzing before he felt ready to release albums. The song begins and ends with the voice of NBA player Damien Lillard during a certain postgame interview. Lillard sums it up best in the track when he says, “. . . and when you really put the time in and whether people see it, or whether people know it or not . . . it always come to light”. Lillard comments on the hidden and often underappreciated hard work that basketball players and rappers alike must commit to that will inevitably lead to success. Furthermore,  “p u n c h i n ‘ . t h e . c l o c k”, serves as an explanation for the album cover which displays the rapper walking away from a basketball net engulfed in flames. Listeners may infer that the flaming hoop symbolizes J. Cole’s dive back into the rap game and return from the off-season.  

“a p p l y i n g . p r e s s u r e”, the fourth track on The Off-Season, focuses on money and either J.Cole’s ability to recognize that it is not everything or other rapper’s fixation to it. The latter is mentioned in the song to discuss the financial difficulties associated with becoming a rapper and yet the glorification of these difficulties by rappers who seemingly only boast about money and materialism. The artist explains this irony when he says, “Instead of cappin’, why don’t you talk about being a broke rapper?/That’s a perspective I respect because it’s real . . .”. J. Cole essentially disses many rappers for being fake while Cole prides himself on honesty and realness. Later in the track, the artist calls attention to an important lesson that he himself had to learn: “I can cap and say I never scratched my jealousy’s itch/But thank God I conquered that ’cause if not I’d never be rich”. Here, the rapper notices the power of envy and comparison to stifle success and even admits to indulging in these practices. In the second line, he conveys to listeners that ultimately overcoming those impediments is the only way to achieve. “a p p l y i n g . p r e s s u r e” ends with the fading sounds of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in which he discusses the prejudice towards African Americans when it comes to receiving money for their work. J. Cole may be trying to convey that the words of MLK are still relevant today as much as they were in the 1950s as it relates to Black people always having to prove their worth in America.  

“m y . l i f e”, the third track on the album, is easily the most popular and notable for its collaboration with both Morray and 21 Savage. In the past, Cole was notorious for his lack of collaborations, however his inclusion of them in this album may be indicative of the progress he has made as an artist. It is not that Cole needs other people to help but rather that he is open-minded to diversifying his album and taking other rappers along on his journey. “m y . l i f e” stands out for its groovy and melodic hook which was sampled from Styles P’s song with the same name. While it is unclear why the artist chose to sample from this particular song, the hook acts as a vehicle for summarizing the central message of the track which is prospering despite disadvantages and adversity, which is an idea sprinkled in almost every song on The Off-Season and many rap albums in general. J. Cole specifically refers to his family’s history of drug abuse and how this resulted in him living very frugally and envying those on top: “I’m just a product of poverty, full of narcotics to profit off quickly/My family tree got a history of users that struggle with demons . . .  Me, I was startin’ to envy . . .”. What is significant about J. Cole’s early life is that it is almost always specific to African Americans and their plight in the United States and often these struggles serve as motivation to persevere and prove disbelievers wrong. 21 Savage’s verse mirrors similar ideas. 

Finally, “i n t e r l u d e”, the ninth track on the album, is a brief song that ultimately encapsulates the overarching theme of the entire body of work. In this piece, J. Cole reflects on the entirety of his life commenting on how he has “ . . . seen the highest heights” and “. . . the lowest of the lows . . .”. Simply put, Cole has seen it all, learned what it means to survive and overcome overwhelming adversity to become one of the most influential rappers of this generation. His journey is significant because it is what continues to motivate him and represents growth, progress and humble beginnings. 

WHAT SONGS SHOULD I ADD TO MY PLAYLIST?!?

  1. “i n t e r l u d e”
  2. “m y . l i f e”
  3. “a m a r i”

The Off-Season is saturated with the real-life experiences of rapper J. Cole through his childhood of poverty and grueling hard work to achieve prosperity. While some might argue that the come-up story for rappers is overdone and redundant, Cole combats this by adding in his own eloquently written rhymes that reflect personal lessons Cole has absorbed in his life. The Off-Season not only represents the highs and lows of the rapper’s life but doubles as an inspiring and motivating piece of literature people of all walks of life can look to. 

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