It’s been a while since I’ve written a rap review. Inundated with alt rock albums left, right and centre, I haven’t been absorbed by — or even as connected to or interested in — hip-hop. But J. Cole’s ‘The Off-Season’ has redeemed the genre’s latest offerings for me. And it’s hardly surprising — after all, Cole’s no ten-a-penny rapper. He’s fully fledged, with oodles of credibility and an air that he’s still more underground than some of his commercial counterparts.
It’s taken me longer than usual to write this review — not because of the quality of the material I’m listening to and assessing, but due to how each track is named! Those spaces and random full-stops? Bit much. And why is only the clean version on Spotify, with bleeped-out expletives? That’s too disjointed when we’re talking rap flows, whether the language is in the gutter or not. Hip-hop’s almost categorically unapologetic, at the end of the day.
More fundamentally though, while I’m eyeballing the tracklist, the collaborations aren’t as extravagant as they could be. But 6LACK is a big draw. I suppose Cole doesn’t have anything to prove in who he enlists. Disregarding the album’s order entirely, that statement feeds into the question posed at the beginning of ’t h e . c l i m b . b a c k’; “are you doing this work to facilitate growth or to become famous?”. Surely it’s just for Cole to grow. That one’s the longest of all the songs but maintains the mellow tone that’s delivered throughout — one of the most crucial things to note about this record.
Of all the tracks that stick to that laid-back brief particularly well, ‘m y . l i f e (with 21 Savage & Morray)’ nails it best, though that’s largely down to the guest harmonies. It has this blessed, almost choral vibe to it in places, which a lot of rappers bring to the table at a certain point in their careers. We’re a far cry from the catchiness of 2011’s ‘Work Out’ or 2016’s punchy ‘Deja Vu’, and that’s okay, even though I still consider them classics.
Back to ‘The Off-Season’ — which quite clearly smacks the ‘on’ button — we’re immediately stung with the feistiness of the backing synths on the album opener, ‘9 5 . s o u t h’. That track sets the pace and raises the tempo. There’s something a bit Jay-Z about that one as well. Plus, it’s instantly hard-hitting and slips in that old famous lyric, “sleep is the cousin of death”.
‘a m a r i’ doesn’t slow things, with those almost stabbing drums that are so well-known in rap. And ‘p u n c h i n ‘ . t h e . c l o c k’ is another with that pulsating beat.
Getting back to the general mellow mood I mentioned, the bulk of the tracks here have lashings of self-assuredness. They’re cool, collected and have that nod-along-to style — ‘a p p l y i n g . p r e s s u r e’ and the killer first single, ‘i n t e r l u d e’, are stellar examples of this (and don’t miss that passing reference to the late Nipsey Hussle). The latter track is probably still one of the standouts for me as well, alongside with the fierce ‘c l o s e’, which has these gigantic, brash rhythms. At the same time, ‘p r i d e . i s . t h e . d e v i l’ is all slick grooves and, as I could’ve guessed upon first glance, ‘l e t . g o . m y . h a n d (with Bas & 6LACK)’ is another winner.
If you only download one track, let it be: ‘9 5 . s o u t h’