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J. Cole and the (Early) Midlife Rap Crisis

‘The Off-Season’ is a portrait of a rapper transitioning to the next stage of his career. What comes next for him isn’t entirely clear.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Jermaine Cole is not a spring chicken. Recently, this collective realization washed over the internet in various ways. Twitter was aghast to learn that the 36-year-old Cole is slightly older than T-Pain. In both a documentary and magazine cover, Cole pondered retirement, despite being just 10 years removed from his debut album. The icing on the senior citizen cupcake arrived as the world watched the Fayetteville, North Carolina, rapper achieve his professional basketball dreams by coming off the bench for the Rwanda Patriots Basketball Club, where he was one of the oldest players on the roster.

The confusion surrounding J. Cole’s age is unsurprising considering his career has oscillated between younger-brother syndrome and elder statesman dreams. He began his career contractually under Jay-Z while operating in the artistic shadow of his idol, Kanye. Commercially and critically, he’s consistently pitted against peers like Drake and Kendrick, to the point a “Heart, Mind, Soul” graphic often recirculates with the tenacity of mono in a freshman dorm. He’s the rare artist who will devote an entire album to wagging his finger at the SoundCloud generation one minute and then come to terms with being rap’s middle child the next.

Ostensibly Cole’s sixth studio album, The Off-Season, released last Friday, is a belabored metaphor about the connection between basketball dreams and rap success. But at its most complex, it’s a project about aging and what happens to a rapper’s legacy, family, and ambitions when they’re closer to 40 than 30. For almost 40 minutes, Cole boasts about the fistfights and conquests of yore like an aging frat bro basking in the glow of homecoming weekend. In a genre still coming to terms with the mechanics of how to make compelling middle-age raps, The Off-Season is the rare record that mines what it’s like to say goodbye to one phase of life while constructing a playbook for another.

J. Cole has built his empire on a specific brand of nostalgia. It’s a world where your college days are your best days, stories about struggling to become a rapper are more narratively vital than any other topic, and referencing an amorphous golden age when rappers really rapped is the ultimate goal. In this vein, Cole speaks about his time at St. John’s University like Pusha T raps about cocaine. On The Off-Season’s first two songs, “95 South” and “Amari,” Cole reminisces about driving “back and forth from N.C. to New York when Jeezy had the crown” and talks about doing “80 on the interstate” to make it to class on time. But mostly the time period he recalls marks the biggest pivot in the Fayetteville MC’s life, when he decided to forgo a second tryout for the St. John’s basketball team in favor of pursuing a rap career.

“That was the moment where I decided that basketball was a pipe dream. It wasn’t what I wanted to spend my next three or four years chasing. And that music was absolutely what I wanted to do,” he told Sports Illustrated in 2013. “I’d have been like a Jamario Moon, one of these guys that worked his whole life just to get to the league. I just got that type of spirit that does not quit.”

From 2007 to 2011, Cole’s entire image was molded by the parallel dimension where Jermaine decides to chase a life of a full-time basketball player instead of becoming Jay-Z’s late-aughts protégé. His early releases—The Come Up, The Warm Up, Friday Night Lights, Cole World: The Sideline Story—either share a sports-adjacent title or cover art, often both. This time period is also when Cole made his best music, mostly because his story was still new and the earnestness that came with it was still in style. But on The Off-Season there’s a tinge of melancholy clawing at the edges of his triumphs. Cole could rap and play basketball indefinitely, but the window of time when he can do both at a level people pay attention to is bound to close.

So when Cole shares memories of being a new father, it ages him. Parenting is one of the most fraught topics in rap. The line between penning an interesting familial drama or sounding like Dr. Spock (not the Star Trek one) is incredibly thin. Rapping about your dad being your biggest hater is fascinating, dreaming of your son becoming a Black Republican is not. Describing the morally dubious acts you’ve engaged in to feed your family is what myths are made of, while stories of bringing your kid to daycare don’t sound nearly as appealing. One of the best rap songs of 2021, “Lemon Pepper Freestyle,” was nearly derailed by Drake’s tales of dropping Adonis off at school and bragging about women ogling him at teacher-parent conferences. But on The Off-Season, Cole uses a small but profound moment with his son to reminisce about his youth.

“Let Go My Hand” covers a lot of ground—a fight with Diddy, the art of choosing beats, dabbling in various religions before realizing you’re too lazy—but in its most effective moments, it tells the story of a father coming to terms with his anxieties, both for himself and his son. Within the span of one verse Cole admits to using machismo to mask his fear of getting punched in the face or shot to death. Cole is an unreliable narrator who can’t seem to decide where he wants to land. He proclaims that he needs to raise a son that’s “not no bitch,” while also admitting that he’s lost as many fights as he’s won because of the very worldview he’s trying to place on his son. By the time the song’s climax story comes around, it’s as if Cole remembers that introspection is for novels and prestige TV, while apocryphal stories about getting the best of Diddy sells records.

At times, The Off-Season complicates Cole’s viewpoint more than it streamlines it. For years, while his peers have built shrines to their burgeoning legends, Cole has doubled down on his relatability. What’s kept him young in the minds of the public is how he often goes out of his way to eschew any semblance of being wealthier or better off than his audience. So when he flip-flops on “Applying Pressure,” it’s an uncomfortable pivot. At one point he raps:

Ain’t nothin’ wrong with livin’ check to check ’cause most have to
Instead of cappin’, why don’t you talk about being a broke rapper?
That’s a perspective I respect because it’s real
What it’s like to be nice as fuck but got to stress to pay the bills

Then, bars later, he rhymes “If you broke and clownin’ a millionaire, the joke is on you.” J. Cole simultaneously upholds the ideal of rappers being honest about their finances, but utters a bar that only a millionaire and the people who think they deserve to exist will defend. It’s not egregious in the pantheon of poorly timed pandemic bars, but it also presents a crack in the armor. Cole’s arrested development will always be the down-on-his luck St. John’s teen with dreams of walking on to the team, but what happens now that he’s approaching a reality where he’s been rich for longer than he wasn’t? Across The Off-Season it’s clear that he’s growing up and out of the popular image he’s been stuck in for the majority of his career.

At 36, J. Cole isn’t like us. He’s attained a level of fame, wealth, and success that will forever be foreign to the majority of humans. That doesn’t make his new stories lesser, but it comes with added scrutiny. Back when Cole was basking in the triumph of his album 2014 Forest Hills Drive—arguably when he skyrocketed into his current level of dominance—he had a decision to make. “For the first time, I felt comfortable in a good way,” he told Slam. “I allowed myself to just chill, watch TV, play video games. Simple shit that ni**as do, but I don’t do. Shit that before I wouldn’t allow myself to do, because it was like, ‘Yo, I got way bigger shit to do, way bigger fish to fry.’ I wouldn’t even give myself the pass of watching a whole [TV] series.”

Nothing about the current stage of Cole’s career can be described as normal. Rap’s household names are hanging on to the genre longer, their kids are becoming just as famous as they are, and it’s unclear whether the music industry is even primed to build superstars in the model of the ones Cole based his career on. The Off-Season marks the end of one version of J. Cole. The man who came of age scorning features, refusing to rap on most peoples’ beats, and upholding the life of a hermit is gone for the time being. Besides being a very wealthy dad, it’s unclear what type of person Cole is when the court and the dreams are finally behind him.