CHARLOTTE, NORTH CAROLINA - FEBRUARY 17: Rapper J. Cole performs during halftime of the 68th NBA All-Star Game  on February 17, 2019 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Jeff Hahne/Getty Images)
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On 'The Off-Season,' J Cole proves he's about growth, not just being one of the greats

From the earliest songs under his current stage name — not the knotty, nasally demos he uploaded to a Canibus message board as a teenager, though those are informative in their own way — J. Cole’s has been a project about canonizing himself in real time. He writes frequently and with great conviction about his desire to be a historically significant rapper in the mold of those he idolizes: Jay-Z, Nas, Kanye West. This desire is not on its own unique, but it figures more largely in his writing than in nearly any of his peers’ or predecessors’, whose classic works he tries to replicate, in spirit as well as sound. In this way, the rapper he has most often reminded me of is The Game, the Compton native who willed and lucked himself into major-label stardom through idol worship and rote mimicry.

Cole is from Fayetteville, North Carolina, but graduated from St. John’s University in Queens. The New York connection was much discussed when his first two mixtapes, The Come Up and The Warm Up, became sensations online at the end of the 2000s, but it was usually cited in fits of industry prospecting. The thinking went that, because he had these East coast bonafides but a home in the then-dominant South, he was well positioned to make the leap from NahRight and 2DopeBoyz to Power 106 and Hot 97. In fact, Cole does not rap much like a New Yorker, though his style — the longform autobiography, the setup-punchline verses about his mic skills, the lack of obvious regionalism in slang or vocal tone — made him a suitably blank slate. He built a devoted following, trafficking in the post-College Dropout everyman earnestness that dominated that blog-rap era, and in 2009, when he signed a deal with Roc Nation and appeared on Jay-Z’s The Blueprint 3 — on a song called “A Star Is Born,” no less — it was clear he had been earmarked as a major contender for the 2010s.

But for the next half-decade he would wrestle with that inherited status. His first album was frequently delayed while Cole and the label felt around in the dark for a hit, and when it arrived it was shoddy, overproduced, and played to the artist’s weaknesses — the classic ‘it takes a village to get two and a half mics debut. Its follow-up, Born Sinner, famously includes a mopey song about how Cole is sad his debut disappointed Nas. Maybe more damningly, that song is preceded on the album by one where Cole strips an obvious Outkast sample of all its depth and ambient dread. This is around when the jokes and parodies of Cole started to calcify: the room-clearing groaners that punctuated every verse, the bizarrely clumsy sex raps, the feeling that he was always preening in a letterman’s jacket. The Billboard returns were healthy, but two of Cole’s contemporaries, Kendrick Lamar and Drake, blew past him in terms of critical acclaim.

Cole responded well, with 2014 Forest Hills Drive, an insular, auteurist affair that, despite its two maddeningly awful hit singles, showed an unshakable production vision and breathed a little life into the stories of his past that he had previously rendered as bloodless parables. The album was hailed as a masterpiece by his still-adoring core audience and certainly seduced a few skeptics. But from there Cole took a strange left turn. His 2016 album, 4 Your Eyez Only, is his strongest work — his voice now with more bend and give, the moral murkiness of the world seen more vividly. And yet it was treated as a minor record, as if he had retreated into the woods he raps about so chillingly. This perception was not helped by his most recent effort, 2018’s KOD, where he awkwardly deploys a handful of in vogue styles to come off like a scolding older cousin, a decision which seemed to age him in front of our eyes. Fortunately, a corrective: The Off-Season, out last week, is an uneven but at times refreshing record that employs some of the looser, more subdued tendencies of Cole’s better work while shrewdly repositioning him near the center of the contemporary rap conversation.

If you are looking for a skeleton key to unlock Cole’s entire style, it’s his song-ending guest turn on “Looking For Trouble,” the posse cut that Kanye West released as part of his Good Friday series in 2010. That verse kicked the murmurs for Cole’s studio debut into a fever pitch and inspired a spate of hyperbolic blog posts. The problem is the verse — and the broader approach to music it presaged — simply isn’t very good. Cole has often premised his music on the idea that he is an unparalleled bar-for-bar rapper, that this furious, staccato, white-knuckle approach to verses is a high wire act only he can perform. But his writing in these instances has always sounded labored, his delivery stiff. That’s why it’s invigorating to hear songs like The Off-Season’s “Amari,” where Cole roughly approximates Lil Baby’s rolling legato — where Auto-Tune is deployed less to accentuate or obscure melody than to round off the edges of lines, to make them blur into one another. This vocal approach is better suited to Cole’s writing than any he has taken before: instead of each aside or conjunction demanding equal, upright attention, the twists and turns of his bars are allowed to flow smoothly and become part of the musical architecture. See the way he cascades through “Twelve coming, we ain't seen nothing / Time change, niggas ain't rumbling no more / nah, what for? / Hungry for more,” each clause slicker and more pained than the last, metronomic yet free.

These sorts of new delivery structures work not only because they add character to Cole’s voice, but because they force him to write more economically. (One wonders how many times, while writing in recent years, he’s stopped mid-bar and asked himself what 21 Savage would do.) “Interlude” succeeds not only because of the forlorn vocal take, but because the lines about “unbearable summers” are jammed right up against impossible grave images of murdered Black men, women, and children. There is no room for the verse to go astray, to chase its own tail: Cole sounds sorrowful and defiant at the same time, in equal measure.

There are moments when Cole’s break from past vocal form does not suit him as well. The warble on “Hunger on Hillside” is too deliberate; the hook on “100 Mil” sounds as if it’s a relic of the KOD sessions, where Cole is skewering a style while trying to wring it of all its commercial potential. More frustratingly, there are others where his old habits grow tiresome. “Punchin’ the Clock,” for instance, splits the difference between those old Eminem/Canibus demos and imitations of late-period Pac, full of alliteration and words delivered in a way to make them sound percussive. And the opening song, “95 South,” is a plodding, interminable midtempo, built around the same Bobby Byrd sample that Jay-Z and Just Blaze flipped for The Blueprint’s “U Don’t Know.” Why Cole, at this point — and on an album with more distinct songs to offer — would want to invite that comparison is anyone’s guess. As is the inclusion of ad-libs from Cam’ron, whose presence simply reminds the listener that he is the superior rapper — and ballplayer!

The Off-Season’s title, of course, continues the hoops theme that has run through Cole’s catalog since its beginning. He clutches a basketball on the cover of 2009’s The Warm Up; the cover of his follow-up mixtape, 2010’s Friday Night Lights, is a stoic basketball player in silhouette; his major-label debut was subtitled The Sideline Story. At the time of this writing, he is playing for the Rwanda-based Patriots Basketball Club in the newly-formed Basketball Africa League. Cole has a tendency to run any convenient metaphor into the ground: see, for instance, the way picket fences and Rockwellian domestic calm are deployed so bluntly on Forest Hills Drive, which takes its title from the house he grew up in and mines those formative years.

But in recent years I’ve come to find the basketball fixation for him fitting, even endearing. Where the comparisons to LeBron James made way back in 2009 go in one ear and out the other, there is something disarmingly self-aware about the way he now invokes the sport — as an arena for steady, incremental growth through work that’s repetitive and unglamorous. In the short documentary he put out in conjunction with The Off-Season, he fixates on the players at his high school and college who outplayed him in season simply by getting in more reps away from the bright lights. It is easy to imagine this animating fear — that someone, somewhere, is outworking him — as the thing that has pushed Cole to sand down the more grating parts of his style, to better integrate the pop gifts of which he at times seemed embarrassed, to drop a little of the pretense and write records that are, for once, interesting on their own merits and not for how they might fit into an imaginary canon.

It is strange for an artist so middlebrow to be so polarizing. Cole’s work includes few provocative ideas and no challenging aesthetic choices; that he grates on people is probably a reflection of how prematurely he was elevated in the industry, and of an on-record personality that can scan as humorless. What The Off-Season posits is that Cole is at his best when ignoring these questions of canon and myth and drilling down on each exercise — topical, musical, philosophical — again and again, while the improvement comes in tiny increments.