Going in, I didn’t know what to expect from Jermaine Cole, aka Light-Skinned Jermaine and famously known as J. Cole’s The Off-Season album. I mean, obviously, I was excited to hear from naturally one of my top-5, who we hadn’t really heard from in about 3 years now. So going in, of course, you’re feeling like, well I wanna hear this that took about 3 years, just cooking in the furnace. And believe you me, Cole’s made my top five not by sheer luck, or on account of his good looks… or his good locks, but by the mere fact that he keeps me coming back, and every single time I pick up on something new and most importantly, I come back feeling like I know this dude, and we were just laying back and chilling as we converse over a soundtrack of carefully crafted and curated beats that in today’s world can peculiarly be known as J.Cole Type beats.
Anyway, I didn’t know what to expect, and the fact that I’m only now finding the words to express my thoughts and opinions which weren’t as accessible as you might think serves as a testament to that. If anything, his last studio album, K.O.D, proved that Cole could explore different avenues, and somewhat grow at the same time as his pen game is undeniable. K.O.D served as confirmation that indeed this was a pattern and not coincidental at all that Cole was adapting and crossing over to shorter projects. And maybe that was a consciously good decision on his part as this pushed him to even elevate his pen game even further by means of sharpening the precision in his bars and storytelling. That meant Cole had to figure out some way of giving you better bars than everything on Born Sinner, whilst at the same time staying true to himself by staying as Cole, and most importantly, tell his stories in a deep and personal way that would influence and inspire not only a sound but a whole generation of listeners, consumers and artistes, to cement him as the idol he is. But hey, we often don’t get to smell our roses whilst we can still hop around. Time is what determines just how great one was because if you reminisce over it, it becomes more than just about the music. And how great a thing, that music has the power to transcend boundaries like that.
Upon listening to The Off-Season, my first listen – numbed by the excitement of it all – was an interesting experience because I listened to the album with the expectation to love it, and sometimes when you do that, you miss the point. The point, in this case, was to listen. So, I failed to listen. Instead, I heard the album play from start to end and I decided, then and there, that the album bumped. Albeit, even at that moment, I had weak conviction about it because my intuition nagged and prodded me as to why this album ‘bumped’. My second listen convinced me more that I was losing my perspective and giving in to the fan syndrome as a fan, and that in some alternate universe where I escape with my headphones on, he’s more than my top fiver, but he’s my boy. At that point, I began to come to terms with the fact that this might not be that great of an album. In fact, it might even turn out to be one of his weakest albums I just don’t connect to or vibe much to. At some point from the first listen, I even momentarily forgot about the record, lost in the bustle of everyday life. But then, despite the uninvited digression, I always found my way back to listening a little bit more. Once again, he was pulling those strings, and keeping me coming back. And most importantly, new stories this time around, so there’s a lot more to listen to, and a different side of my boy to get to know.
This might not be a full-length project Cole over “Cole type beats”, with his contagious sing-along hooks, but we’re still getting more intimate time with the rapper as he does what he’s grown to be well-known for: giving us bars in which he not only reveals a little bit more of who Jermaine/Cole is, but that are deeply personal as well. Mind you, that’s not on account of how he sounds, but on how his projects grow on you, almost becoming a part of you, and how this hits you every now and then but you don’t acknowledge or understand the workings of connection and its covertness.
Cole has mastered how to connect with his fans and listeners whether he’s reminiscing as he tells us about the future, being snarky over a self-produced, Ronnie Foster’s ‘Mystic Brew’ sampled, laid back, strung beat laced with Lamar vocals screaming he dropping his album same day as Kanye. Or letting really intimate and candid with neighbours thinking he’s selling dope or walking you through his adolescence feeling like a bum and feeling inadequate due to a lack of confidence portraying the ripple effects of growing up without a father, getting high because the lows can be so low, and consequently bending but not folding. Whatever the message is, he has managed to establish a strong connection with his fans (3X Platinum no feature) and in that same breath still be able to get you in turn up mode with reminiscent bumpy tracks like GOMD where even though it’s an upbeat club banger boys anthem track, he’s still dropping nuggets of wisdom dropping parts that thugs skip, what niggas don’t sing about but be in the club singing to the window to the wall. Just as I had managed to connect to Cole through these various previous projects, I found myself being able to do that with The Off-Season too, and because of that, people could trash it and say whatever they want, and I couldn’t be bothered much, because I’m getting what I wanted. In fact, what I always want getting into any record, I connected, and I’m getting that part of Cole that’s intricately but seemingly effortlessly embedded into his music that most people miss or don’t know how to be receptive of. What more could I want? What more could one want?
Although the album starts out strong with 9 5 s o u t h off the bat, in the genesis of my listening tours and adventures of the record, the track A m a r i caught my attention. Maybe it’s because of the spark that comes off the timeless collaboration of Cole and T-minus joint. Cole boasts of his place in the lyrical game by rhyming off in a braggadocios tone of his ascent in the game and how he’s basically the rose that grew out of concrete and suffered through cold winters, at which we experience a heartbeat stop, as your heart skips a beat to not only Cole’s raw emotion that you can hear in his voice as his vocals stretch over a split-second break in the beat but also to just how struck you are by how this is the first time you’re hearing Cole sound like this. Isn’t that what artistry is about at the end of the day, exploring different facets of your craft as you grow grey with experience and time? His voice feels like it’s coming from stretched out lungs harnessing power from an overflow and burst of energy flowing in Cole’s veins. It’s like that time in Sacrifices where at the end of his verse he confesses to having been so overcome with emotion that the tears on his face felt good. But this time, he’s not coming from a place of tears, the emotion is not overpowering him. This time he’s using it as a device to stake his place because he done went through the lows of lows, trudged through the lanky childhood, went through life experiences and worked his way up. Now that he’s finally at a place where he’s coming into actualization of the wearing of time, he is giving it all he’s got before he descends into a hiatus that transcends into retirement.
Not to mention this is the first track we begin to hear Cole speak openly and overtly about his experience with fatherhood, with the exceedingly inspired l e t g o m y h a n d, where the knot ties when Cole utters today my son said, “Dad, let go my hand”. It feels as if Cole’s showing us his vulnerable side as he always does, but a different kind of vulnerability shines through as he goes on to enunciate his fears that have come with parenthood, of one day having to let go. Already, we see the nagging feeling familiar to parents and guardians of worrying if they have sufficiently equipped their offspring for the world manifesting in Cole. As all of this is revealed and we unpack it, it feels like we’re catching up and he’s simply continuing on from the last time we met from Forest Hills Drive in ’14, and it was for my eyes only, pun intended.
Cole manages to make it feel like he’s picking up from ’03 adolescence (FHD), wherefrom the mere way his words are crafted and the way his tone is one can easily allude to the kind of teen Cole was, as he overall paints us a picture of Forest Hills Drive. This same kind of vulnerability is displayed in the same vein throughout the threading of 4 Your Eyes Only. And now that same kind of vulnerability is exuding from l e t g o m y h a n d as we see the self-conscious, timid teen Cole we once met in Forest Hills Drive, as a father suffering from fears of making sure that his son doesn’t experience the same things he did and would rather not have, I gotta make sure he’s equipped, I gotta make sure he not no bitch ‘cause niggas bound to try him. And from there on, we get lost in Cole as he goes on an almost stream of consciousness tone, embedding a reminiscent and to an extent nostalgic narrative in his bars. In this song, we get the Cole we could have expected who’s a continuation from She Knows/Power Trip Cole, with the emotional hooks that grow on you as you feed and tap into the emotion locked inside their compositions. And we get that Cole fused with a Bas and 6lack collaboration, and a P.Diddy outro.
Sometimes I question whether this shit matters, putting substance into something in a world so used to instant gratification,
Cole starts off on a sombre and nihilistic note, with questions of purpose and if anything really matters, particularly given the landscape of today’s world where we’re a generation of peoples that’s grown so accustomed to instant gratification and seeking fulfilment and satisfaction that comes instantly, disregarding the unearthing nature of time. Maybe it’s a cause and effect relationship at play there, between fiending for instant gratification and a largely mechanized world, that we’ve slowly rewired our brains to wanting everything, even things that are supposed to naturally mature over time, at the click of a button.
Cole has this uncanny ability to explain a feeling you’ve had or always experience but never could put in words. Listening to this part of the track I had an epiphany as I realized that, yes… that’s a way to describe it, and what makes it even better is, Cole’s doing it again, and I AM HERE FOR IT! Soon as the track started, I was hooked as it felt reminiscent to Damian Marley and Nas’ 05 joint Road to Zion. Starting off in a stripped-down candid and sincere tone,
I probably heard it before, but slept on it, you know? Shit don’t always connect as soon as you press play, at times you gotta step away, do some living, let time provide a new prescription, giving truer vision.
And he couldn’t have worded it for me any better, because oft-times, things don’t always connect and resonate to their fullest capacity/strength right off the bat. It’s only after some living that it’ll somewhat click, showing the undeniable illuminating and enlightening effect of time. How many times have you listened to an artist or a record, and you don’t really connect to it till after a period of time when for whatever reason you go back to it and start unlocking all the hidden gems and treasures you’d missed before? And who could have ever enunciated that feeling with such a relatable ambience and tone that instantly brings memories and moments you’d experienced prior by yourself into reach, as Cole?
As a firm believer in the revealing effect of time, I cannot further dissect this project, delving into all the nitty-gritty of Cole’s pen game, and ultimately what it means to me as a listener, a fan and a creative, because I myself have some living to do before I discover whatever I missed after pressing play. I’ll allow myself to evolve with the art, and grow intimately with this project. In the meantime, this is what has connected and resonated. But I’ll close off with this, this is Cole’s The Off-Season album. It’s not his last, if this wasn’t the Cole you were expecting, it’s the Cole you got, contrary to the belief and expectations we might have had of this being Cole’s best work to date, propped by the release of The Audacity (an essay he put out last year in the winter July 20th, on the Player’ Tribune) that reinforced the idea of this being an album bred out of a hunger that matched someone on the come-up fiending for recognition and success. I can comfortably say this wasn’t what I expected, regardless, one thing you can’t dispute or deny is that this is still Cole, and no one else. And for that, I won’t be so bold as to shit on a project that I know I can only get from Jermaine, and no one else.
“cause niggas just try to act like you just not that motherfuckin nigga, like..like you just really don’t do it how you do it, like niggas will really try act like you don’t do what you do…nigga look you dead in your face and really act like you don’t do it to the level that you do it”
For a minute let us just take the moment to acknowledge this dude, and what he’s consistently done throughout his career, as we journey to the Fall Off.