If any goal is foremost in J. Cole's mind, it’s reaching what he sees as his full potential. At once his own biggest cheerleader and harshest critic, much of Cole's discography is entrenched in the idea that he must not only etch his name in the lineage of hip-hop’s greats, but leave the artform in a better state than how he found it. Where most rappers climb the ladder one rung at a time, retracing Cole’s craterous steps through the industry shows that from the moment that he extended an invite into Cole World on The Warm-Up, he’s been strategizing for his eventual coronation.

The opening gambit from what appears to be the concluding phase of his career, The Off-Season shows that the tenacity of those early days still resides within him and when required, he will coax it out of himself through rigorous examination of the legacy he aspires to achieve. “From a skill level, have you wrote your best song?" he pondered in the promotional documentary Applying Pressure. "Have you left no stone unturned creatively?” 

Given its title, you'd be forgiven for thinking that this project is nothing more than a sporting display of prowess. When in its execution, The Off-Season actually stands tall among some of the most fully realized and accomplished projects in Cole’s canon, making for a rewarding listen that, while less outwardly cerebral than a 4 Your Eyez Only or KOD, sees his immaculate pen game take center stage. 

Implanting urgency into each syllable, Cole attacks his track in a way that brings new context to the rabid dogs that graced the cover of the record’s preluding two-pack Lewis Street. As in this final salvo of his career, Cole is rapping as though he were still struggling to keep his head above water. Opening with the colossal “95 South”, Camron’s exalting intro sets the tone for a record that is beneficially boisterous. Where it can often feel as though Cole is rapping with his listeners’ best interests at heart, humility or teachable moments aren’t high on the agenda in the early going of The Off-Season, replaced by a measurable desire to rubbish any narrative that he’s an underachiever or otherwise uninspiring.

Making liberal use of the sort of pitched-up soul samples that boomed out former R.O.C. fortress Baseline Studios, the appearance of Killa Cam is an early sign that this time around, Cole is aware that the broader palette afforded by collaboration is nothing to shy away from. The Off-Season sees Cole liaise with legends and cull from vintage NY hip-hop-- see his repackaging of the hook from Styles P and Pharoahe Monche’s “The Life” on the astounding 21 Savage and Morray-aided “My Life”--  before platforming new talents that he’s deemed worthy of bringing into his orbit. 

J. Cole

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If there’s any one defining characteristic of the record, it’s Cole’s exquisite wordplay, churning out everything from inventive disdain for the police-- “Krispy Kreme dreams, sometimes my dawgs want to kill 12”-- to odes to video game visionary Hideo Kojima on “Applying Pressure.” Complete with an unobtrusive production credit for Timbaland, Cole even manages to make the tried-and-tested rags to riches tale into a mesmeric maze of basketball references and salutes to the transformative powers of imagination on “Amari," while “100 Mil” juxtaposes a radio-friendly chorus with masterful braggadocio as he assuredly declares that he “don't care if it's Michael B. Jordan that's calling my woman to fuck, she ain't gon' never pick up.” 

Left-field as it may seem to have Lil Baby guest on “Pride Is The Devil," or to hear him adopt production techniques more commonly associated with the younger generation, Cole gently imbues the project with hints of new sounds in ways that aren’t so much concessions as they are displays of versatility. To perceive his use of autotune or dalliances with more melody-driven delivery as somehow wrong would be to encase him in a bygone era and lead to the exact kind of “Fall Off” that he clearly has no interest in enduring. 

Flanked by an eclectic team of producers including DJ Dahi, BOI-1DA, Jake One, and longtime peer T-Minus, Cole delegates in a way that allows him to focus on the intensive drilling of his rhyming abilities. But where this freedom regularly leads him to embrace his swagger, there’s still time for his usual ruminations on the nature of humanity.  

Away from contemplating his own mortality on the aforementioned “Pride Is The Devil," “The Climb Back” shows him advocating for intervention before violence escalates over a wondrously soulful foundation. “Close” allows Cole to lament over the death of a close family friend that was entrapped by a life that he was fortunate enough to leave behind. In one of the few entirely self-produced offerings on the record, Cole flips funk legends The New Birth’s well-trodden goldmine for sampling “Do It Again," using his track’s monosyllabic title as the launchpad for a dazzling, 2-minute melee in which each rhyme derives from that same root. In less skilled hands, this might have been difficult to conceptualize, let alone deliver without feeling self-indulgent. But on an album that Cole has said “represents the many hours and months and years it took to get to top form,” he pulls it off with panache.

In another emotional highpoint, “Let Go My Hand” fittingly invokes the plaintive flow of Eminem’s “Mockingbird” as he discusses his own shifting perspective on parenthood and the responsibility that he has to his son. Elsewhere, album closer “Hunger On Hillside” mutates sweeping strings in ways that would’ve made Late Registration-era Kanye envious, giving Fayetteville’s finest the chance to reassert that “The money might fade, but respect don't, still gon' be me when success gone.”

Operating at a self-determined pace, Cole may be one step closer to The Fall Off that he’s mandated for himself, but The Off-Season’s content suggests that he’s as impervious as he ever has been to any dip in quality or relevance. In fact, he’s as essential as ever. Impeccably juggling flows as though each one has an expiry date and leaning into his vocal range like never before, The Off-Season would be a remarkable body of work at any juncture in an artist’s career. But with Cole eyeing retirement and unfulfilled hoop dreams at the same time, it hits deeper, dispelling the idea that it’s impossible to remain at the top of the mountain if you’re peering down towards new pastures.