Home News ‘The Off-Season’ Is J. Cole’s Best Album

‘The Off-Season’ Is J. Cole’s Best Album

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Poll J. Cole fans on his best album and the majority answer will be his third, 2014 Forest Hills Drive. (Open it up to mixtapes, and Friday Night Lights is probably the clear winner.) The third album is often a pivotal point for mainstream rappers: the moment where they either lock themselves into a successful lane or declare themselves a generational talent who’s not just here to stay, but to transcend. Kanye pushed himself to a self-described “stadium status” sound on Graduation. Jay-Z finally figured out how to master radio but stay street on Hard Knock Life. Drake distilled his R&B tenderness, pop sensibilities and bro-rap bars into his most concise, assured effort to date on Nothing Was the Same.

As for Cole, after five years of indulging in the superficial highs and inevitable lows of the music industry, he returned to his roots (the album title is his childhood home address) and made a dynamic project that loosely chronicled his life to that point. The bars were sharper, beats harder (even the oft-ridiculed “Wet Dreamz” objectively knocks), and the radio hits were organic, with no frills, flashy features or trend-chasing sounds.

FHD’s success secured Cole a fanbase large and loyal enough to propel him to No. 1 releases and sold-out arena tours without having to play the industry game, and the albums that followed indulged that luxury a little too heavily. Heady concepts (4 Your Eyez Only is written from the perspective of a slain friend to his daughter; KOD grapples with addiction both experienced and in general) clashed with banal confessionals. Who can forget “Foldin Clothes,” wherein Cole basks in domestication as exemplified by drinking almond milk and, yes, folding laundry with his wife?There are career-high gems scattered across these projects, no doubt, but with a limited pool of producers outside of himself and nary a feature, there’s little pushing the music from feeling too familiar.

The Off-Season is a thrilling return to well-rounded form from the first seconds, when a Diplomats-evoking thunderous beat actually gives way to Killa Cam’ron himself coaching Cole to talk his shit. Introspection is cool and all, but “Cole been goin’ plat’ since back when CDs was around/What you sold, I tripled that, I can’t believe these fuckin’ clowns’/Look how everybody clappin’ when your thirty-song album do a/measly hundred thou’” is the fly talk we’ve never really gotten from him before.

That intro sets the tone for the rest of the project. 21 Savage shows up for “My Life,” a banging companion to “A Lot,” while Lil Baby continues his crime spree of bodying rappers on their own song on “Pride Is the Devil.” And where the last few Cole albums featured songs best suited for reflective Sunday drives, a production roster of Boi-1da, Timbaland, T-Minus and DJ Dahi yields heaters you can cue up on a Friday night as well.