J. Cole's new album "The Off-Season" is stacked with references to hip-hop classics, a telling glimpse at the music that inspires him to this day.
Perhaps it’s his tendency to stay removed from the public eye, but it’s sometimes easy to forget how big a superstar J. Cole truly is. A reminder was issued last night when the Dreamville lyricist delivered his sixth studio album The Off-Season. Set to be the first chapter of a three-album pre-retirement rollout, Cole prefaced the project by raising awareness of one of his most celebrated qualities -- his technical prowess as an emcee. A wise move, as no matter where you might stand on Cole’s content, his ability to pen dynamic verses and concoct innovative flow schemes will consistently solidify his place among the game’s elites.
There’s a case to be made that Cole’s Off-Season is primarily aimed at the people who will actively take note of and appreciate his craftsmanship. It’s part of why his brief but effective rollout consisted of a radio freestyle on the L.A. Leakers, during which he brought things full circle by snapping on Souls Of Mischief's “93 Til Infinity” -- a beat he once bodied on The Warm Up’s “Till Infinity” -- and Mike Jones’ timeless “Still Tippin’.” Two instrumentals valued by hip-hop heads and a testament to Cole’s own status as a student in the game. The Off-Season holds many such testaments, evident the moment the album kicks off.
In a surprising turn, the first voice heard on the opening track “9 5 . s o u t h” is the legendary Killa Cam’ron himself, who does the honor of introducing Cole over a contemporary flip of Just Blaze’s classic “U Don’t Know.” Nostalgia is instantly achieved for anybody even remotely invested in the Roc-a-Fella / Dipset dynasties, a welcome homage to Cole’s own Roc Nation ties. Adding to the nostalgic wave is the presence of Lil Jon, whose distinctive and hype-inducing growl closes the track with a sample of “Put Yo Hood Up.” Doubling as a time capsule of sorts, the intro goes a long way in setting a tone, deconstructing Cole’s own musical lineage without falling into the trap of back-in-my-day-esque didacticism.
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The tribute to early millennium hip-hop continues, reaching another crest at “My Life.” A spiritual sequel to “A Lot” in that it reunites Cole with 21 Savage, the early fan-favorite features a notable call-back to the classic Styles P and Pharoah Monch duet “The Life.” Originally released on Styles P’s 2002 solo debut A Gangster And A Gentleman, Monch turned in a passionate performance, delivering the hook over Ayatollah’s haunting production. Nineteen years later, Cole passed the torch to young North Carolina artist Morray, who turned in a melodic cover of Monch’s chorus, possibly introducing the deep cut classic to a new audience in the process. On the heels of the Cam’ron assisted Just Blaze flip, Off-Season’s early moments are lined with nods to classic New York rap from the onset of the two-thousands, a refreshing spotlight on a time often overshadowed by the golden era preceding it.
There’s a subtlety in the way that Cole weaves in his homages -- breadcrumbs of hip-hop history, from Puff Daddy’s Forever to Nas’ Illmatic bar to Eminem’s doppelganger-laden “Real Slim Shady” video -- that keeps The Off-Season' accessible throughout. Though older fans will no doubt appreciate Cole’s easter eggs, the production (handled by a star-studded collective) feels discernibly contemporary. Certain tracks find him dipping his voice in autotune, such as on “a m a r i,” a beat that wouldn’t have sounded out of place were Roddy Ricch or Lil Baby to have tackled it. In lesser hands, such a stylistic departure might have sounded jarring. Yet Cole’s performance on “a m a r i” is not only elevated by an extremely fluid delivery, but by the sharp lyricism that has come to be expected; “We from the Southeast, ni*gas know,” he spits, setting up a slick double entendre. “This where the opps creep real slow / Won't vote but they mob deep with the poles.”
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His appreciation for hip-hop’s new school reaches an apex on “p r i d e . i s . t h e . d e v i l,” an up-tempo duet with the new school’s arguable reigning champ Lil Baby. Tackling a theme previously explored by his friend and collaborator Kendrick Lamar’s “Pride,” Cole swerves expectations of a philosophical deep dive and opts for an anecdotal approach. “Pride be the reason for the family dichotomy / Got uncles and some aunties that's too proud to give apologies,” raps Cole. “Slowly realizing what the root of all my problems be / It got me feeling different when somebody say they’re proud of me.” His frankness is matched by Lil Baby, who offers a few admissions of his own. “Will I be destroyed? Come to me with everything, it's starting to get annoying,” he raps, turning the looking glass toward his own vices. “I'm addicted to promethazine, it's crazy, yeah, I know it / All this money coming in, it drives me crazy not to show it.”
Between the references to classics of the past and collaborations with stars of the present is one important factor: the future of J. Cole. It’s a topic that seems to be on the rapper’s mind throughout The Off-Season, and those willing to pay repeat visits to the project will have much lyricism to unpack. What drives him, what makes him tick, his values and principles are all put on display, albeit sometimes at a blink-and-you-missed-it pace. Taking time to unpack the bars is part of the process whenever a lyricist of Cole’s pedigree releases something new, as seldom do all the references and bars unveil themselves on the first listen. It will be interesting to see how the album unfolds over time, once the day-one hype of the release fades away. In the meantime, how do you feel about The Off-Season and its many homages to the classics that shaped J. Cole's music as we know it?