Review Summary: I guess the critics think I'm just a joke
Whether your head is buried in sand, trapped in your own sphincter, or simply sitting astride your shoulders, you're likely to understand that the artists we revere often have different tastes to critical media and their resultant groupthinks. If you want to see this hypothesis out in the wild, venture onto YouTube and surrender the following search unto big data: “what's in my bag”. These videos in which Big Name Artists are let loose in a record store and then interviewed about what they find usually contain at least one surprise or outsider take, passionately espoused. Notice how, contrary to how critics operate, the zeitgeist is rarely mentioned in relation to these recommendations. Rather, the general gist is sheer admiration for simple acts of creativity or craftsmanship.
Following this vein, if you don't mind sullying your algorithm with short clips of talking heads in the hip-hop sphere, try searching for something like “rappers talk about J. Cole”. What you'll see here is a who's who of hip-hop discussing J. Cole's exact placement within the pantheon. As far as active rappers go, the big names will tell you that he's near, if not on, the podium.
It's not as if he hasn't proved himself. Across six LPs and two lengthy mixtapes Cole has spent a hot minute in the kitchen, and his fans are busy chowing down at Le Restaurant de Jermaine, paying no heed to the herd of critics standing placidly outside the window, jotting down their personal grievances with the décor, transposing lengthy complaints into biting tweets, setting the world alight.
Full credit to the critics; their grievances are often founded. While Cole's winding flows and impassioned performances are no less impressive on wax, it's in both the artistic minutiae and the holistic, front-to-back experience of the eternally-revered Album where he traditionally falls short.
Once more, vindication unto the keyboard warriors; Cole's gone and done it again. His performance on The Off-Season
will have hip-hop oldheads smiling, nodding, reminiscing on days of old. The way he balances carrying a single rhyme through most of a track like in 'p u n c h i n ' . t h e . c l o c k' or 'c l o s e' against clever feinting and switching of flows in 'i n t e r l u d e' and 't h e . c l i m b . b a c k' will have rappers creaming their jeans. Finally, the lack of any poignant through-line either sonically or thematically will have bespectacled journalists shaking their heads and talking about how Kendrick does it better. Same artist, same strengths, same weaknesses, same conversations, same numerical scores. Fuckin' yawn.
Let's focus on some of the positives that are persistently pushed to the wayside. Cole's mileage with multi-syllabic rhyme patterns is ridiculous ('9 5 . south''s first verse); his use of autotune/melody is on point, and even gets explorative in a couple moments ('a m a r i' and 'h u n g e r . o n . h i l l s i d e'); and his best tracks are straight up murder. 't h e . c l i m b . b a c k' in particular is unreal – the beat is a woozy carnival ride, the chorus goes in, and the all-important verses contain Cole's most elaborate rhythmic flows (plural, this is important) of the release while retaining a smooth and charismatic delivery. The second verse maintains the effortless technicality of the first, but brings emotion to the fore, describing the suffering he's witnessed, and is still witnessing, people close to him experience.
Of course, there are nits to be picked, but that's already been done by most publications, and you'll know'em when you hear'em. What all of these middling scores (see above) don't project to the media-consuming masses is that this album remains essential listening for hip-hop fans in spite of its shortcomings. If that statement pangs of mediocrity to you, chances are that this album will strike you as appropriately mild. For those that are about the craft, the same statement signals an exclusive tour through a realm of rapping brilliance. Cole has earned his right to hyperbole just as he earned his professional basketball signing – with hard fucking work and training. Rest assured that while a bunch of us nerds are sticking as many demerits as we can find onto The Off-Season
, rappers worldwide are studiously listening and taking notes.