J. Cole- The Off-Season Breakdown

Aiden Schwartz

Cole is back to assert his spot as a king of the rap game but flexes this extremely valid claim with moxy. For as long as hip-hop has existed, flexing your talent, money and relevance have been a predominant theme. Unlike most rappers, J. Cole is in a position where every conversation regarding the best rappers in the game starts with the names J. Cole and Kendrick Lamar. Instead of having to boast on his songs to prove himself, we see J. Cole speaking objectively on his impact, skill, and role in the rap game throughout the album.


This is especially true on songs like “a p p l y i n g . p r e s s u r e” where Cole justifies his flexing as only an act to remind his audience and peers of his skills and status. Throughout this song, Cole also reflects on his humble beginnings and recommends rising artists to stop flexing what they don’t have, but instead be genuine about their struggle, as that is more authentic and relatable, and similar to Cole’s path to stardom.


This theme stays consistent throughout the album along with themes of injustice on songs like “a m a r i,” continued discussion of success while maintaining a mindset that aspires to growth on songs like “1 0 0 . m i l ‘,” and humbling moments despite success on songs like “l e t . g o . m y . h a n d” where Cole touches on his self-doubt and fears throughout his life. 


With this long-awaited album and time taken off since his last release, we see some extremely necessary growth and changes from J. Cole. For starters, Cole breaks his trend of albums without features, as the fall-off has an extremely versatile feature list that contributes to making this project so remarkable. On top of this, the list of features contradicts J. Cole’s past criticisms of young rappers and the direction of the rap game, as many featured artists come from this generation of rappers Cole criticized. On the third track, “m y . l i f e,” 21 Savage and Cole reunite for the first time since Savage’s 2019 hit “a lot.” Their distinct deliveries touching on similar subjects only complement each other, creating a highlight on this album. Lil Baby’s feature on “p r i d e . i s . t h e . d e v i l” showcases one of his most impressive features. This high-quality feature seems to be a testament to Lil Baby proving to Cole that despite Cole’s critiques, Lil Baby and his generation of rappers could really step up with some seriously skillful bars.


The presence of these features is just one of the many ways Cole contradicts his past criticisms of the direction of the rap scene, as we now see Cole embracing newer sounds with his flow and beat selection. The beat selection on this project shys away from the boom-bap “J. Cole type beats” that we find all over Youtube, and embraces more trap production while maintaining a sound that feels very authentic to Cole, with the laid-back melodies and sample chops that Cole is known for. We even see Cole rapping on a beat that uses the same sample as Amine’s “Can’t Decide” on “p r i d e . i s . t h e . d e v i l” which resulted in a shout-out from Amine on his Instagram and Twitter applauding Cole’s use of this sample. 


Despite this growth, as J. Cole discussed on “1 0 0 . m i l,” he still has room to grow. Overall, this is a can’t-miss album, with few imperfections on certain beats, song structures and deliveries. Improving upon these minor flaws can only lead to Cole’s next project being completely perfect.