Fayettvilles’s very own J. Cole has returned with his sixth full length album, “The Off-Season.” This album marks his return after a deadly pandemic year underlined by a fiery summer of anti-police brutality protests. The tape’s release at this point in Cole’s career is a very interesting one, not just because of recent events, but also due to where he left us last. His last project, “KOD,” was more of a mixed bag with Cole analyzing different topics and ideas within society. There’s no doubt that Cole has cemented his name since then as one of the best to ever pick up a mic.

With every step of his career, he has increased his profile and proven his influence in the music industry, doing most of it without features. What’s interesting is how comfortable he is with breaking this streak with an array of secret guest features. Right off the bat, we’re met with an hyped-up intro from none other than Killa Cam; this project was well worth the anticipation as this is definitely one of Cole’s better projects for the same reason the track is so compelling. Cole sounds like he’s still trying to get a record deal, accompanied by a solid beat and grand horn sample. Laced into a confident delivery, cutthroat bars and lyricism set the record straight on where Cole stands in the rap game. The beat mixed with its rap style, Killa Cam’s intro, as well as the Lil Jon and The East Side Boyz sample toward the backend show that Cole is really a student of the early 2000s.

This is a very refreshing version of Cole, where he drops the woke pretense and instead focuses on what he does best: relatable storytelling accompanied with great beats. To be fair, there’s nothing wrong with music with a social pretense and conscious angle, but typically when Cole releases a tape with a grand observation or statement, it tends to not always connect and live up to the hype. In no way is “The Off-Season” a shallow record, as there are plenty of personal contemplative corners throughout the tracklist. On the cuts where Cole decides to pull back some layers, he does it in a way that relates directly to his own personal experiences that’s vulnerable and not painfully embarrassing. Not only that, but all the guest appearances really added some excellent and much needed versatility to the tracklist.

I love the lyrical highlights on the intro song, such as the line “Put a M on your head you Luigi brother now” or “So many shells left on the ground it would make the Easter Bunny proud.” Even though this is a strong start to this extended play, the rest of the journey is not without its potholes. There are a couple of tracks on the album that really could have been built out more. Cuts like “p u n c h i n’.  t h e. c l o c k”  hit very hard for the time that it lasts. However, it would have had more of an impact had there been another verse or a hook somewhere. The Damian Lillard sample in the beginning and tail end of the track stole the show, really telling the story before and after Cole starts rapping along with the hypnotic entrancing beat that really makes this track a highlight of the album.

While it’s fair to say that the first half of the album is a bit spotty, it picks up speed hard, like a skateboard going downhill. Tracks like “p r i d e .  i s . t h e . d e v i l” where the lyrical focus impressively revolves around pride with smooth transitions into an incredible Lil Baby verse is an exceptional moment in the album. The Lil Baby verse on this track, where he is essentially rapping his life away, is great in the way it goes above and beyond to match Cole’s energy. The track “l e t . g o .  m y .  h a n d” is one of the more confessional cuts on record where Cole dives into themes of self-doubt and his son growing up. This leads him into a diatribe about his times growing up being afraid of fighting, getting hurt, getting killed and not being hard enough as he needed to be to get through numerous obstacles in life. The laid-back hypnotic beat and relaxed rapping, along with 6lack’s background vocals, make for a very personal and intimate track.

Verdict: There’s so much to like about this album from start to finish. For the everyday J. Cole fan, this album is sure to excite. Though it is his last contribution to the rap game, “The Off-Season” is a great listen that’s hard-hitting, smooth and thought-provoking.