BY JOSHUA BURRELL, MANAGING EDITOR
Once J. Cole caught the double-platinum clout train off the cusp of “2014 Forest Hill Drive” his head got big. His head grew bigger and bigger after his following albums went platinum and helped prove his skill. Yet “4 Your Eyez Only”, “KOD”, and now “The Off-Season” solidify that Cole rests just at the threshold of the throne.
- Cole’s sixth studio album, “The Off Season”, spreads out 12 decently delivered and well-produced songs over 39 minutes, but nothing is new. Consistency has been Cole’s claim to fame. Unfortunately, his projects don’t evoke feelings as much as they evoke static archetypes.
“p u n c h i n ‘ . t h e . c l o c k” and “l e t . go . my . h a n d”, show J. Cole riding flows fearlessly (more vulnerable on the latter). Proud quotables on
“a m a r i” like, “I never fall out with the bro // hate when your family turn into foe,” will fly off the tongue. Do take time to acknowledge the rhetoric throughout “The Off-Season”.
“a p p l y i n g . p r e s s u r e” is filled with archetypical drug and “hood” allusions. In “t h e . c l i m b . b a c k” Cole taunts rappers with less money than him. “The Off-Season”, like all of his past albums, showcases Cole’s attention to misogyny, grind culture, and being the “Greatest Of All Time” (GOAT).
Cole’s goat-hood grew questionable after his 2020 single “Snow On Tha Bluff”. The track was a reaction to Noname’s attempt at directing collective confusion and trauma toward education by charging folk to read. “The Off-Season” doesn’t deliver a poignant approach or answer to the issues Cole criticized Noname about either.
His misogynistic tone and empty suggestions brought clarity to why Cole feels lackluster.
It’s clear that J. Cole isn’t trying to educate, lead, inspire, or be profound outside of his established world play. It’s clear that J. Cole is in the league of greats by delivering consistently platinum projects. Record sales and clout aside, his content hasn’t developed past boasting and it’s clear that he’s not the best at anything.
Rappers become the best at making riches and then becoming advocates for Capitalism. Using Cole as an example, wealth distances rappers from poverty and trauma, while they exploit that trauma to grow richer. If Cole can offer suggestions to Noname about proselytizing people, then his albums and lyrics require more substance.
Most of Cole’s discography has solid production and strong wordplay, but when his songs end I don’t miss anything anymore. Nodding to bars about not snitching, glass ceilings, and numb feelings, don’t leave me reeling after hearing it in every project. It’s time Cole let go of his ego and get back in his bag.
Double platinum with no features and Kendrick Lamar comparisons may have marred Cole’s self-definition. And this issue transcends J. Cole. Name a popular or mainstream-adjacent male-rapper whose schemes escape grind culture, phallic imagery, or pontificating around their pen’s pressure. Few come to mind. Too many rappers share the same topics and tones without contributing new thoughts to expand their audience’s worldview.
Misogyny and gang culture have been the tools rappers use to talk about their communities. Rappers can half-heartedly denounce violence in select tracks, but who will share context about the structural webs that ensnare their target audiences in cycles of trauma? Great rappers make millions then talk about hope as a call to action while doing the bare minimum for communities that they profit from.
All of this because rappers are glamorized race representatives among the rich without having language or interest in helping improve the conditions of targeted black and poor communities. For example, in “m y . l i f e” J. Cole ridicules working-class folk in proximity to drug trafficking and neglected communities. There’s nothing wrong with working in Wendy’s when your life chances are limited and capitalism demands labor to live.
Rappers can politic about how their chosen community may have been murdered, but what about acknowledging death and violence is an answer to it? J. Cole can talk about his experiences around Black trauma then boast about being rich in the Same breadth. Few have been brave enough to risk being honest by critiquing racist institutions.
When the streets are on fire, neutral stances from J. Cole are not cool, rappers must make greater strides to help put fires out. At this point in rap, rappers feel like figureheads for liberalism and meritocracy. Messages found in rhetorical lyrics — making it out through hard work and endlessly laboring to hoard wealth — are one-note, fake woke, and disingenuous.
Cole is a proclaimed GOAT but his contributions to rap culture are small. He’s not a tech pioneer like Soulja Boy, trailblazer like Nicki Minaj, educator like Noname, genius-producer like Pharrell Williams, or an unrivaled lyricist like Kendrick Lamar. His acclaim followed his accolades and his popularity drove his pen’s potency to decency.
All of this to say, J. Cole doesn’t sound hungry in “The Off-Season”. To be the best when rap is over-saturated means creating new pockets by which artists can explore and expand the genre. Until J. Cole can push the envelope and deliver something to energize or change the game, he has no business calling himself the best.