When North Carolina rapper J. Cole dropped KOD in 2018, the righteous act was starting to grow old on fans. Not to say his albums since 2014 Forest Hills Drive were bad (they aren’t), but you can only deliver so many musical sermons before it starts to wane on listeners. J. Cole doesn’t completely abandon the storytelling raps that shot him into stardom on his latest project, The Off-Season, but takes a bend on his musical road, indulging us with more tricky wordplay.
The Off-Season strays from the path we’re accustomed to with J. Cole is with his feature catalogue. It’s been eight years since we’ve heard a feature on a studio album with artists like Kendrick Lamar, Miguel and TLC providing valuable contributions on Born Sinner. The J. Cole-plus-other artists equation was only an option on other artists’ projects or Dreamville’s Revenge of the Dreamers compilation albums. The Off-Season has a star-studded cast of collaborators. The album immediately opens with Cam’ron on “95.south” to hype up the song that serves as a reminder of how entrenched J. Cole has been in the rap game. A Lil Jon sample for good measure at the end signals a changing sound on this album.
The most noteworthy feature of the album undoubtedly goes to 21 Savage on “my life,” which sounds like the sequel to their 2018 collaboration, with similar crooning background vocals on a loop. Their previous collaboration netted the pair a Grammy for Best Rap Song in 2020. The difference between the two songs is Morray on the hook, who’s also from J. Cole’s Fayetteville.
The other feature of interest is Lil Baby’s verse on “pride is the devil,” who doesn’t really rap about what the title suggests except for one line in the middle of his verse, “All my pride gone, had to lose it all then I got rich” but is still impressive with him and J. Cole’s cohesion between the bridge and his verse. “pride is the devil” also features the same sample that T-Minus used when he produced Amine’s 2020 song “Can’t Decide” without losing what makes the song catchy.
Dreamville rapper Bas is featured on The Off-Season with appearances on “100 mil,” “let go my hand,” and “hunger on hillside,” mostly singing on hooks and outros. In comparison to other songs on the album, “100 mil” and “hunger on hillside” don’t feel like they fit with J. Cole’s singing-rap delivery. “let go my hand” most resembles a J.Cole song from his last three albums. The song discusses the fears he had as a kid and how they’ve evolved as he became a father. J. Cole’s delivery is reminiscent of Eminem’s first verse in “Stan” (before he goes all crazy) as it almost sounds like both people are reading off a letter. Bas, Cole and 6LACK, the last feature discussed on the album, sing the second repetition of the chorus before leading to a bridge by Bas and then an outro from Diddy, who leads us in a prayer.
The last feature from this project is a bit of a surprise for those that don’t pay attention: NBA superstar Damian Lillard both introduces and concludes the track “punchin’ the clock,” a reference to how much work both him and J. Cole put into their craft. Despite the song sounding like a slowed down version of Kendrick Lamar’s FEEL, Lillard’s outro perfectly encapsulates The Off-Season. You put the work into your craft over the summer to reap the rewards later in the year, when it truly counts.
If The-Offseason is the musical representation of working on your craft, J. Cole just raised the stakes for The Fall Off, his next album.