J. Cole Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop Lecturing
21 Savage sits up on a leather couch, pulls on a vape pen, and asks, “What made you say Off-Season?” J. Cole has been waiting for someone to ask this question. While Savage sits silent on that couch, sometimes nodding passively, Cole launches into a two-minute soliloquy about his lost post-college time, his 2009 mixtape The Warm Up, his battle with complacency, the pep talk that he once got from some friends at a party, his dashed basketball dreams, and his approach to his craft. As he eases out of motivational-speaker mode, Cole admits, “I know that was a long answer, but shit. I’ll play you the, uh, the third joint.” Cole is right. It was a long answer.
This is the beginning of Applying The Pressure, the new mini-documentary that J. Cole released alongside his new album The Off-Season. But it’s also just sort of how J. Cole does things. Watching the doc, I kept thinking about 21 sitting there on that couch, waiting for Cole to finish talking. It reminded me of being a kid, asking my father about some random World War II fact, and then just wanting to disappear, being overwhelmed by the torrent of boring information that would start coming out once my dad went into lecture mode. J. Cole lives in lecture mode. He always has. He’s comfortable in lecture mode. He’s become one of the world’s biggest rappers without ever leaving lecture mode.
The great rappers that Cole idolizes didn’t start thinking about their legacies until their careers were already well in gear. Nas showed up rapping his ass off, and then he came to believe all the justifiable hype that followed. Jay-Z made his mark by talking cold-blooded hustler shit, and he went years before stepping back and trying to figure out his place in the universe. Kanye West probably was considering his legacy from the beginning, but he was having so much fun combining ideas and images and sounds that the overwhelming importance of his work didn’t drown out his creativity until later. Cole, on the other hand, envisioned himself as some sort of chosen one from the start, and he’s spent a whole career trying to live up to his own vaunted ideas of rap greatness. It’s a generational-anxiety thing. Cole wasn’t competing against his contemporaries. He was competing against every rapper ever.
Historically, that anxiety of importance has made Cole’s music tough going for me. Cole was clearly a rock-solid rapper and producer, but his self-seriousness prevented me from having any fun with his music. Cole loves to talk about rap as a sport, as a competitive practice. In his recent SLAM interview, Cole goes back to that well again and again, dwelling on the idea of pursuing musical excellence as if that was an objective ideal. For me, though, Cole’s music has always crackled to life when he stops dwelling on all that, when he just raps. That was the appeal of Cole’s 2019 rap-camp compilation Revenge Of The Dreamers III. It was Cole just rapping alongside some of the handpicked best in the game, testing his own shit-talk abilities. I thought the result worked better than any of Cole’s actual albums.
Cole’s new album The Off-Season is a clear outgrowth of that rap-camp experience and the impressive run of guest-verse features that he went on soon afterwards. For all his talk about endless practice, The Off-Season is Cole trying to work on conversation with the present-day rap landscape, letting outside voices in on the whole story that he keeps telling about himself. For a few albums now, Cole has been a self-sustaining system. He’s rapped all the verses, sung all the hooks, and produced all the beats, to the point where “platinum with no features” became a running joke. Cole knew that was a running joke, and he smartly steered away from it.
The first voice we hear on The Off-Season doesn’t belong to Cole. Instead, album opener “95 South” is bookended by Cam’ron and Lil Jon, two of the great pillars of early-’00s wild-out ignorance. Neither one raps. Cam merely talks triumphal shit in between verses, and the song ends with a sample of Lil Jon’s anthemic 2000 head-buster “Put Yo Hood Up.” Something similar happens on “Let Go My Hand.” Cole raps about the time he got into a weird little scuffle with Diddy at a VMAs after-party, and then Diddy himself appears at the end of the song, praying theatrically.
Elsewhere on The Off-Season, Cole raps next to 21 Savage and Lil Baby, while singers like 6LACK and Morray deliver hooks. Those Savage and Baby verses represent smart, considered choices on Cole’s part. Both are Atlanta natives from the generation just behind Cole’s, and both balance out mass appeal with critical respectability. Cole wants to engage a younger generation, but he wants to do it on his own terms. For the most part, he pulls it off.
J. Cole still prefers contemplation to adrenaline-surge intensity. Even working with outside producers like Timbaland and Jake One, Cole basically spends The Off-Season rapping over ruminative boom-bap beats that sound like J. Cole productions. (Even when Cole is on a T-Minus beat that was already on an Aminé album last year, Cole sounds like he’s pulling from his own beat stash.) The Off-Season, like every other J. Cole album, has a sonic consistency that’s rare among major-label rappers on his level. Cole likes soft-humming piano loops and watery soul samples and muted breakbeats, and he uses those all through The Off-Season. That means that you can zone out to the album, that you can focus on what Cole is saying. It also means that the album can get a little boring.
The Off-Season might work best as a pure rapping showcase. Cole loves language, and on the new album, he gets loose with meter and inflection and wordplay. Even when he’s describing heartbreaking moments of loss, Cole finds sharp and surprising ways to twist meanings around. (Describing a robbery that turns into a murder: “Told him to come off his chain for tryna floss/ Died over a cross just like the start of Christianity.”) Cole comes up with some cold lines on The Off-Season: “I got more cribs than Habitat For Humanity.” He also drops occasional clunkers: “So many shells left on the ground, it make the Easter Bunny proud.” Over the 39 minutes of The Off-Season, Cole never allows himself to sound anything less than fully locked-in.
This time around, though, Cole’s main message seems to be that people should stop questioning him. He’s successful, which proves his greatness — the self-fulfilling logic that seems to affect every massively successful rapper. Last year, Cole got into a weird little tangle with Noname and came out looking like an ass. When Noname tweeted about all the rich rappers who weren’t doing enough for the protest movement last summer, Cole released the defensive track “Snow On Tha Bluff,” and Noname fired back with a minute-long response called “Song 33.” Noname later apologized for the song, and Cole told people to listen to her, so it’s not like this led to some deep, simmering tension. But Cole comes back to the idea of his own greatness a few too many times on The Off-Season: “Envy keep your pockets empty, so just focus on you/ If you broke and clowning a millionaire, the joke is on you.” These days, that motivational-speaker prosperity talk feels a little tin-eared. When you’ve built an empire by depicting yourself as a grounded and regular dude, you can’t be so thin-skinned. It doesn’t work.
To his credit, though, Cole seems to know this. Those shots at broke people are asides on The Off-Season; they’re not the point of the album. Instead, the point is for Cole to tell his own triumphant story, the story that’s obsessed hims so much that he’ll deliver a whole Gettysburg Address when 21 Savage asks him about his album title. In the past week, Cole’s story has taken an unpredictable turn. The day that The Off-Season came out, Cole was in Rwanda, getting ready to play basketball for the national team.
This whole saga — a 36-year-old rap star playing three to six games of pro hoops in the Basketball Africa League — has to be one of the weirdest release-week stunts in rap history. Cole has written about how he gave up on his college basketball dreams and then put all his effort into rap instead. Now he’s a rap star and, at least on some level, a professional basketball player. If Cole wants to keep self-mythologizing, then doing goofy shit like this makes that whole process a whole lot more interesting. I’ve heard a whole lot of albums about a whole lot of rappers pushing themselves towards greatness. At this point, though, Cole could rap about going 3-2-3 in 17 minutes of playing time against the Nigeria River Hoopers. I’ve never heard anyone do that before.
1. Danny Brown – “Welfare”
Danny Brown seriously did an Ol’ Dirty Bastard impression for an entire song. I wish he’d make a whole album like that. He’s so good at it.
2. 30 Deep Grimeyy – “First Day Out”
“Shout out my lawyer Mr. Foster, made the DA look stupid!/ The judge gave me house arrest and said, ‘Good luck with your music!’/ I had the CO’s on my dick, you know them bitches be choosin’!/ The bucks I had up on my books, I could’ve bought me a Buick!” I love the specificity. Good job, Mr. Foster.
3. E-40 – “19 Dolla Lapdance” (Feat. Suga Free & ProHoeZak)
E-40 and Suga Free have been making great rap music for decades, and I’m excited to hear what they can do when they truly explore the uncharted frontiers of horny-old-man rap.
4. AKAI SOLO – “Ocean Hue Hours”
The whole AKAI SOLO/Navy Blue album is rap music for eating mushrooms and wandering around forests. This particular song is almost too pretty to rationally process.
5. Bizzy Banks – “City Hot”
The way Bizzy Banks says the word “stupid” is just unbelievably cold. If Bizzy Banks ever calls you “stupid,” it’s in your best interests to just wither up and blow away on the breeze. There’s no recovering from that.