Hip-Hop

Five Burning Questions: J. Cole's 'The Off-Season' Tops the Billboard 200 & Blankets the Hot 100

J. Cole
Wesley Mann

J. Cole photographed on Aug. 16, 2018 at The Silo in Houston.

For the sixth time in six tries, rapper J. Cole has the No. 1 album in the country. His first full-length set of the 2020s, The Off-Season, dropped earlier this May to mixed critical reviews but ecstatic fan reception -- and this week, it debuts at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 albums chart.

The set moves 282,000 equivalent album units in its first frame, just 9,000 short of the year's best first-week mark, held by Taylor Swift's Fearless (Taylor's Version). In addition, the album also charts all 12 of its tracks in the Hot 100's top 40 this week, including a staggering four debut entries in the top ten. (All of this while Cole was also making his professional basketball debut, as a guard for the Rwanda Patriots of the Basketball Africa League.)

Which of the songs is most likely to become the set's breakout hit? And can J. Cole keep doing this forever? Billboard staffers answer these questions and more below.

1. J. Cole moves 282,000 equivalent album units of The Off-Season in its first week -- the second-biggest debut for any album in 2021, albeit a lower one than for his previous album, 2018's KOD (397,000). In basketball terms, how would you rate Cole's early commercial performance here?  

Carl Lamarre: Commercially, I would maybe say this was a smooth 25 and 10 performance. That stat-line is admirable, but when you remember Cole's explosive 2018 output (40 and 15 type-of-game), it's hard not to acknowledge the slippage sales-wise. Now, musically, he dished out haymakers for his rabid fanbase, who were craving punchlines from the Carolina giant, but overall, I'd be lying if I said I didn't expect more.

Jason Lipshutz: A hard-earned 23 and 12 from a veteran power forward in an easy victory -- nothing to tell your grandchildren about, but a testament to workmanlike consistency. As we approach the 10-year anniversary of J. Cole’s debut album Cole World: The Sideline Story later this year, the rapper still posting six-figure debuts while generating tons of fan interest and dominating online hip-hop conversations speaks to his staying power, regardless of the exact first-week equivalent album units number. That figure is a drop-off, but still one of the biggest first-week totals of the year -- an occasion for a few fist-pumps in a celebratory post-game interview.

Heran Mamo: An MVP coming off the bench to reclaim his title. J. Cole has been categorized as one of the greatest of all time in the rap game. Even if it’s not his personal best (let’s not forget that in Cole’s three-year hiatus, the Billboard 200 rules have changed by getting rid of merch and ticket bundles), he’s scoring record numbers across the board with the second-biggest debut, the largest streaming week for any album and biggest week for a hip-hop release in 2021 for his sixth No. 1 album. 

Neena Rouhani: I would consider this album to be an alley-oop. Cole usually doesn’t call in any assists (something his fans love to point out--platinum no features!), but for The Off-Season, he enlisted the help of a handful of artists including newcomer Morray, hip-hop icon Cam’ron and Lil Baby -- and, appropriately enough, Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard.

Andrew Unterberger: It's a solid playoff performance from a dependable longtime scorer -- somewhere in between the superstar productivity of Cole's buddy Damian Lillard and the veteran savvy of Dame's sixth man teammate Carmelo Anthony. Very impressive and totally respectable, but not necessarily as headline-grabbing as some past stat lines.

2. Units aside, the fan response to The Off-Season has been among the warmest Cole has ever gotten -- what's one thing he's doing for the first time (or just noticeably differently) on this album that's allowed it to draw such a generally positive response? 

Carl Lamarre: To me, I think Cole went back to his roots. If you remember his early mixtapes like The Come Up and The Warm Up, he was on a mission to prove that he was the best rapper. On The Offseason, Cole tucked away his activist hat and morphed into the bloodthirsty MC we loved and admired. Now that's not a knock on Cole, because he and Kendrick are the leading voices of our generation regarding social issues, but you can tell he wanted to have fun and rap again. Mission accomplished.

Jason Lipshutz: The “platinum with no features” tag has always been a blessing and a curse for J. Cole, at least from a critical perspective: the rapper has proven himself to be dominant enough as a lyricist to satisfy his sprawling fan base, but the lack of guest stars has contributed to the idea that his albums are too same-y, fairly or unfairly. Not only are the guest spots on The Off-Season smartly deployed and exciting, but the fact that they exist at all helps diversify the sound of the LP while still maintaining Cole’s focus. Case in point: the album’s middle run -- featuring Lil Baby in attack mode, Puff Daddy praying and 6LACK receiving a high-profile spotlight -- is one of the strongest of Cole’s discography.

Heran Mamo: Recruiting rising stars like Lil Baby and fellow Fayetteville, NC artist Morray signals he’s down for teamwork with those who’ve long admired him. Morray previously described J. Cole reacting to his music as “Michael Jordan coming into the court with Derrick Rose and saying ‘good job.’” Aminé called Cole "one of the greats” after sharing a screenshot of their recent FaceTime call -- presumably about Cole’s “pride.is.the.devil,” featuring Lil Baby, sampling the T-Minus-produced beat on Aminé’s “Can’t Decide” track from his 2020 sophomore album LimboCole knows he stays at the top of his game, but that doesn’t stop him from working with the rookies of the genre. 

Neena Rouhani: I hate to repeat myself but for one...features. Cole hasn’t featured a verse from another artist on an album since Born Sinner -- aside from, well, himself (as Kill Edward on KOD). He’s proven to be versatile and interesting enough to carry every track, but this time around he brought in rap favorites across generations. And that’s one thing that I think contributes to the warm response, Cole has remained relevant to blossoming rap-heads as much as he remains a favorite for millennials. On top of that, I think it’s what he is doing that’s the same, rather than what’s different. We’re definitely in an era of so-called "mumble rap,” so Cole releasing something true to his style at this moment felt like a breath of fresh air for a lot of listeners.

Andrew Unterberger: I think he's taking a little bit of a lighter touch with his messaging on this album, stepping back from the occasional heavy-handedness of songs like "ATM" and "1985." It's allowed fans to focus more on the formalistic aspects of his rapping, rather than getting bogged down in debating the narratives behind it.

3. The release of The Off-Season has also lead to Cole's strongest single-week showing on the Billboard Hot 100, with the rapper debuting four songs in the Hot 100's top 10: "my.life" with Morray and 21 Savage (No. 2), "amari" (No. 5), "pride.is.the.devil" with Lil Baby (No. 7) and "95.south" (No. 8). Do any of these seem like a potential breakout hit single to you, or do any stand out in particular from the rest of the project? 

Carl Lamarre: It's a toss-up between "my.life" and "pride.is.the.devil," but I'm going to lean on the latter only because, for one, I never thought Baby and Cole would get on a track together. I appreciate Cole stepping outside of his comfort zone and breaking his tradition of not collaborating. As Baby continues his hot streak of obliterating features when lined up against juggernaut MCs, the results are golden, as Jermaine also displays his lyrical flavor for a different generation.

Jason Lipshutz: "my.life" functions as a spiritual sequel to “A Lot,” the 21 Savage-J. Cole team-up that was one of the most enduring hip-hop singles of 2019. While their latest collaboration isn’t as immediate as its predecessor, their chemistry still crackles, and Morray’s velvety crooning only helps matters as the song’s unlikely centerpiece. Plus “my.life” includes a Ja Morant name-check! As the Grizzlies upend the Jazz in the playoffs, there’s no way this doesn’t become The Off-Season’s breakout hit.

Heran Mamo“my.life” immediately catches my attention not only because it has the highest debut at No. 2, but because it's the first time we get to hear Morray and Cole’s chemistry on a track. After getting his hometown hero’s co-sign on his first Hot 100 hit “Quicksand,” things are looking up for the soulful rapper. It reminds me of how Drake’s “Laugh Now Cry Later” hit did wonders for Lil Durk’s career by earning him his highest-charting Hot 100 hit. 

Neena Rouhani: I mean three of the four songs mentioned are the opening tracks of the album, so I don’t think that’s a coincidence. The exception is "pride.is.the.devil," which features one of the biggest artists of the new school. To me, that’s the one that feels the most like a hit single. The instrumental’s guitar loop and drum pattern is in line with what’s hot and Cole’s cadences and repetitive, sing-songy rap schemes hit a lot of the ingredients for a radio hit, and Lil Baby definitely holds his own alongside the hip-hop giant. Secondly, I’d say “my.life” which has some really great melodies (shoutout to Morray), similar instrumental elements to “pride,” and some quick-witted bars, courtesy of Cole and 21 Savage.

Andrew Unterberger "my.life." Go Grizzlies.

4. Despite the four Hot 100 top 10 debuts, a first No. 1 hit on the chart remains elusive for Cole, as he's blocked on top by the bow of Olivia Rodrigo's breakaway new single "Good 4 U." Is he now the biggest star in popular music to you without a No. 1 to his name? 

Carl Lamarre: He has to be. I don't think Jermaine cares at this point of his career because of his previous feats: six consecutive trips to the Billboard 200 summit, Grammy Award-winner, platinum without any features (multiple times), and a key clog in the 2010s alongside Kendrick and Drake. Jermaine is a perennial all-star with Hall of Fame credentials.

Jason Lipshutz: Maybe the pop fanatic in me is making me biased here, but Dua Lipa is such an enormous top 40 star at this point that I’d guess casual music fans would be pretty surprised that none of her singles have topped the Hot 100 yet. J. Cole has long been considered more of an album auteur than hit-maker, even if his streaming popularity naturally sends some tracks to the upper reaches of the Hot 100 (as it does this week). I wouldn’t be shocked if Cole crowns the Hot 100 sometimes in the near future -- he’s at No. 2 this week, after all! -- but I’m also not shocked that he’s never made it to the summit.

Heran MamoPart of me wants to argue on behalf of Dua Lipa because “Levitating” is inching closer and closer to that No. 1 spot after a nearly 40-week odyssey, and unlike J. Cole, she regularly has the support of pop radio to take her there. Yet, Cole has more than twice the amount of top 10 hits as her and has sent all six of his studio albums straight to No. 1 on the Billboard 200, so my final answer for who’s the biggest star without that key chart-topper is Cole.

Neena Rouhani: First of all, I don’t think Cole really cares that much. If he did, he could absolutely do it the same way a lot of other artists did: alongside a pop icon. If we had J. Cole on a song with Camila Cabello (like what Young Thug did) or Doja (like Nicki Minaj), or Taylor (like Kendrick Lamar) -- or if he collaborated with Beyoncé again -- we’d most likely see him land a No. 1. But with that being said, yes. I do think he’s the biggest artist without a No. 1.

Andrew Unterberger: It's him or Dua, for sure -- he's got the history, she's got the more recent heat, and both have each come one spot away in the past two weeks. It's not something he particularly needs for the resumé, since he hasn't really been about singles since "Work Out" disappointed certain rap elders nearly a decade ago. But he'll probably get one soon enough anyway; his following is just that strong and his output is that consistent.

5. For the better part of a decade now, it's seemed like J. Cole can mostly disappear in between albums for a couple years, come back with a new set without much advance notice when he decides it's time to do so, briefly set the music world on fire, and then retreat to the shadows not too long thereafter. Do you think he can keep up this cycle basically indefinitely, or will he have to switch up the approach at some point? 

Carl Lamarre: I think this routine works for Cole. He makes you miss him long enough before he dips his feet back in the water and decides to swim his way back to prominence. The adage "absence makes the heart grow fonder" is applicable: The longer Cole fades to black, the more we yearn for his presence.

Jason Lipshutz: “Indefinitely” is a long time, but if J. Cole abides by this formula for another decade, I’d guess that he would be just fine. That’s a testament to the fan base he’s accrued over the course of his career -- hip-hop fans hungry for his lyricism and perspective to be delivered over the course of a fleshed-out body of work -- as well as to J. Cole’s consistency on the mic, his skills unendingly sharpened even if some projects are stronger than others. No matter how certain albums perform or the number of hits they produce, J. Cole has found his blueprint, and a long-term audience for it.

Heran MamoIf it’s worked this well for him in a six-album cycle that took 10 years to complete, I don’t see why he would need to switch it up. The man was once known as a high school basketball star who walked onto St. John’s University team -- and even after he paused his hoop dreams for his rap career, Cole returned to the court for his pro basketball debut at age 36. Making it to the NBA by way of an initial overseas career was something he wrote about setting as a goal by 27. Time remains an unpredictable element in his life, on and off the court, but that doesn’t mean it’s setting him back. 

Neena Rouhani: I think he’s tapping out soon. I feel like at this point, he’s basically got demos down for whatever will come out in the near future while he’s living out his baller dreams, and then he’s going to retire. Which I totally respect and understand; he doesn’t seem to be fixated on stardom in any capacity. With whatever he drops next, I could see the album cycle picking up pace, with Cole releasing more frequently, as opposed to 2-3 years between projects, especially since he’s teased at retirement soon.

Andrew Unterberger: I think he's still got a long way to go before diminishing returns would really be a concern with this release pattern. That said, I was a big fan of J. Cole's in-between year of 2019 -- with his Dreamville roster's Revenge of the Dreamers III, his rare star guest turn on 21 Savage's "A Lot" and his own smash one-off "Middle Child" -- and hope we have one of those years in store for us from Jermaine before he next peeks his head out for a full album however many years down the line.