In early 2019, J. Cole released Middle Child—one of his best songs of all-time—as a follow up to his 2018 album KOD. On the non-album single, J. Cole admitted feeling caught in between two generations of hip hop artists. Longtime fans had no trouble quickly understanding where he was coming from. J. Cole is 36 years old, making him older than the Soundcloud and post-Soundcloud generation, and his style is far more traditional than a lot of what’s popular in rap right now. And on the flip side, he feels younger and less experienced than the hip hop icons he likes to compare himself to (see Let Nas Down). As much as he wants to see himself as their peer, the reality is that he came up as an apprentice to Jay Z, and started making splashes at a time when guys like Jay Z, Nas, and Andre 3000 had already swam around the world and back.
Middle Child is a great song, but what makes it compelling is how directly it follows up the last song on his previous album, 1985 – Intro to “The Fall Off.” On 1985, Cole calls out the new generation of hip hop artists for being short-sighted, pandering to the white audience, and creating music devoid of substance. This outro (or intro, if you like) left a lot of fans, artists and others in the community with bad tastes in their mouths. Many thought Cole came off as arrogant and preachy and that he was out of touch with the culture. Flash forward to Middle Child, where Cole responds to all of this criticism, using the song as an opportunity to clarify and expand on his thoughts regarding the younger generation of hip hop artists:
I’m dead in the middle of two generations
I’m little bro and big bro all at once
Just left the lab with young 21 Savage
I’m ’bout to go and meet Jigga [Jay Z] for lunch
Had a long talk with the young nigga Kodak
Reminded me of young niggas from ‘Ville
Straight out the projects, no fakin’, just honest
I wish that he had more guidance, for real
(lyrics from Genius)
Clearly he’s softened his stance and changed his tone since 1985. Rather than talking down to fellow artists, he walking a more supportive, sympathetic path. That change in perspective carries over into his highly anticipated new album The Off-Season, where we see a more complete version of how his attitude has shifted. On the new album, his sixth, J. Cole fully embraces hip hop’s younger generation, both musically and lyrically, and enlists stars like 21 Savage and Lil Baby to prove that it’s more than just talk—that he believes in the inter-generational synergies. And keeping with the spirit of Cole’s long history of basketball metaphors, let’s just say that he thrives as a team player in this new collaborative environment: leading by example, moving the ball around, and making others around him better.
Rather than being isolated between generations, he is re-establishing himself as a member of both. Embracing his new role, Cole realized his music will improve—not suffer—by taking in new influences. This awakening manifests beautifully on The Off-Season, as he features a diverse guest list. He brought on the Harlem legend Cam’Ron and crunk pioneer Lil Jon for the album’s intro; recruited Diddy for some mogul talk; mixed in Lil Baby and 21 Savage verses for freshness; and showed love for fellow Fayetteville, North Carolina native and newcomer Morray. It’s a huge 180 for Cole, who went from condescendingly saying he’s ‘fucking with your funky lil’ rap name’ on 1985, to having Lil Baby star on the climactic song pride.is.the.devil on his new album. Ultimately, Cole didn’t want to be the bridge between the generational divide; he wanted to fully combine them.
At around the 09:50 mark in Applying Pressure, the mini documentary he released to promote the album, J. Cole discusses how he had to change his mindset this time around. Part of that meant starting to see working with other artists as “an opportunity for growth.” He said that for The Off-Season, he approached guest features like a mini album, giving a lot of thought on the best way to incorporate other voices into his vision. He goes on to ask a rhetorical question: “Do you really want to look back and be like, you didn’t work with nobody?” His answer is no—he doesn’t want to regret not collaborating with others.
The change in approach on The Off-Season goes even further. J. Cole had no features on his past three albums–it wasn’t since Born Sinner from 2013 that he had guest features. That’s undoubtedly impressive, but at the same time it’s fair to say that the right features in the right places could have elevated each of those albums—especially on the hooks. Cole also handled almost all of the production himself on his previous albums, but consistent with his new collaborative approach, he got some help this time, working with hit producers such as Timbaland, T-Minus, Boi-1da, and DJ Dahi.
So, although Cole ditches the concept album approach from 4 Your Eyez Only and KOD, the message on The Off-Season speaks for itself. J. Cole raps his ass off on The Off Season. He sounds comfortable introducing more elastic tones and experimenting with new cadences and rhyme schemes. His song architecture also improves drastically as he moves away from, but doesn’t totally abandon, half-singing big clunky hooks. In terms of lyrical content, he doesn’t rise to new heights on the album, but it’s the improved rapping technique and the passionate delivery that takes his overall rapping to a new peak.
Despite the open-minded new direction Cole takes, make no mistake: he shows zero mercy on The Off-Season. He hasn’t sounded this hungry since his mixtape days, when the young Simba was rapping for sport, lyrically terrorizing other rappers and threatening anybody in his path, punchline by punchline. On his new album, he returns to his rap-first think-later instincts that defined his early mixtapes The Come Up, The Warm Up and Friday Night Lights.
J. Cole knows he’s put in the work to get to the point he’s at. He’s spent his whole adult life climbing to a summit that kept getting higher. As Damian “Dame Time” Lillard reminds us in punchin’.the.clock, when you put in the work during the off season, you’ll rise to the occasion during the big moments. The album cover for The Off-Season brings that message to life. Cole has conquered, torched, and retired the basketball hoop on the practice court, and the cover photo serves as proof for himself and others that he refuses to be complacent, even as he enjoys success.