J. Cole’s Off-Season Has Several Cryptic References To Illmatic

Last Friday (May 14), J. Cole released his sixth album, The Off-Season. Three years removed from his acclaimed KOD, Cole returned with more social commentary, versatile deliveries, and plenty of themes to unpack. Whereas his 2018 outing was an indictment on drug use amid the youth, especially within the Rap community, Cole’s latest work tackles violence, including first-person accounts of the losses Cole has suffered around him. While the MC/producer frequently reminds listeners that he has never been a hustler and waves off notions of being a tough guy, his work shows that he is affected all the same by these perils. There are also recurring themes surrounding basketball, one of Cole’s other passions—something he detailed in the Applying Pressure documentary and SLAM magazine cover story.

Throughout his career, Cole has embraced concepts. He has also been transparent about his deep respect for Nas. On a What’s The Headline episode (embedded as audio and video below) dedicated to The Off-Season, there is evidence surrounding the cryptic connections between this 2021 album and Nas’ 1994 classic debut, Illmatic. Both releases clock in at approximately 39 minutes. Each LP begins with another speaking voice—each drawing from the album maker’s upbringing. In Nas’ case, “The Genesis” opens with a “Live At The Barbeque” sample, Wild Style music and dialogue, and Jungle and AZ  speaking with Nas. For Cole, Cam’ron breaks the silence on “9 5 . south” (embedded below), a track that is an homage to JAY-Z “U Don’t Know,” the Roc-A-Fella era, and Lil Jon & The Eastside (Jon appears on the song). In the debut verse to Cole’s LP opener, he raps, “So many shells left on the ground, it make the Easter Bunny proud / I get up, dust my clothes off, sleep is the cousin of death.” The lyrics are an obvious reference to Nas’ “N.Y. State of Mind.” In the first verse of his ’94 album, Nasir Jones famously spit, “I never sleep, ’cause sleep is the cousin of death,” overtop DJ Premier’s stellar beat.

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The similarities do not end there. Both releases utilize powerful features carefully, in the same place (the third song on the album)—thanks to AZ and 21 Savage, respectively on “m y . l i f e” (embedded on the playlist below) and “Life’s A B*tch.” On “c l o s e,” J. Cole returns to using the “Ville-Matic” nickname that also belonged to a Friday Night Lights track. The similarities and connections do not stop there, as discussed in AFH‘s podcast, which also unpacks the artwork and other places of symbolism. The time-codes are available below, under the video and audio embeds.

On episode 47 of Ambrosia For Heads’ What’s The Headline, we discuss:

0:00 Intro
1:08 Breaking down the main themes of J. Cole’s The Off-Season album
1:19 Basketball metaphors prevail
2:30 J. Cole has now mastered many different rap styles
3:40 Cole actually trained to make this album
6:20 The Off-Season has several hidden parallels with Nas’ Illmatic
13:30 The Off-Season is a mixtape in disguise
18:20 Breaking down J. Cole’s The Off-Season song by song
18:30 “95.south” is Cole embracing both is Southern AND his Northern roots
23:15 J. Cole raps like he never has before on “amari”
26:38 21 Savage is the first guest artist to rap on a J. Cole album since 2010, on “my.life”
34:30 J. Cole shows absolute disrespect for his competition on “applying.pressure”
37:48 Damian Lillard explains the concept behind The Off-Season on “punchin’.the.clock”
45:36 J. Cole raps over a trap beat by a key producer for Drake and Kendrick Lamar on “100.mil’”
48:35 “pride.is.the.devil” is a lull on the album…but is it intentional?
51:52 Is Cole’s choice not to include features on the tracklist a slight to his guest artists?
55:00 “let.go.my.hand” is the best song on J. Cole’s The Off-Season album
1:00:07 Puff Daddy has had altercations with Kendrick Lamar, Drake and J. Cole…Coincidence?
1:05:39 “interlude” shows why it’s important to hear songs in the context of the album
1:10:05 “the.climb.back” is nearly a year old. Should Cole have included it on The Off-Season?
1:14:26 “close” is J. Cole’s most personal song on The Off-Season
1:18:00 “hunger.on.hillside” ties The Off-Season together sonically and thematically
1:20:08 Ranking J. Cole’s album catalog and where The Off-Season sits
1:24:20  J. Cole’s The Off-Season is the best album of 2021 so far…but how will it fare against Drake, Kendrick Lamar and Travis Scott?
1:26:47 LL Cool J and JAY-Z are being inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame
1:29:00 Michael Jordan inducting Kobe Bryant into the Basketball Hall of Fame
1:30:33 DMX’s Exodus album (now with its tracklist available) will be released on May 28
1:33:20 MC Serch clears the air about his relationship with Nas

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Ambrosia For Heads readers can catch regular discussions about the culture on our What’s The Headline podcast. Additionally, What’s The Headline has recent interviews with Pharoahe Monch, Prince Paul & Don Newkirk, Statik Selektah, Lyric Jones, The LOX, MC Eiht, Mobb Deep’s Havoc, Duckwrth, photographer T. Eric Monroe—who detailed photographing the 1995 Source Awards—and Lord Finesse. All episodes of the show are available wherever you stream your pods.

#BonusBeat: Ambrosia For Heads’ official playlist, featuring selections from J. Cole’s The Off-Season as well as new music from Khrysis, CZARFACE & MF DOOM, Aesop Rock & Homeboy Sandman, Markis Precise, Mick Jenkins, Sa-Roc, Rapsody, Del The Funky Homosapien, Conway The Machine, De La Soul, Evidence, Vic Mensa, Alchemist & Armand Hammer, Pink Siifu & Fly Anakin, Phife Dawg, Redman, JAY-Z, Nipsey Hussle, The Away Team, Spillage Village, Dom Kennedy, Statik Selektah, Smino, Saba, AZ, Masego, J.I.D., Tobe Nwigwe, Royce 5’9, Black Thought, Busta Rhymes, Hit-Boy, Nana, Lyric Jones, Nas, Oddisee, Benny The Butcher, 2 Chainz, REASON, Jack Harlow, and others.