(May 19, 2021). As far as hip-hop goes, 2021 started off with a thud. Until this month, there were no superstar releases and only two albums by rappers had topped the Billboard 200 charts (Playboi Carti and Rod Wave for one week each).
Meanwhile, the hip-hop faithful stood back and watched while albums by country and pop stars like Morgan Wallen, Taylor Swift (one a throwback re-recording), and Justin Bieber took turns dominating the list.
That all changed this month, where every No. 1 album so far has been a hip-hop one, including the latest releases by Young Thug and Gunna, Moneybagg Yo (twice) and DJ Khaled.
And now the hip-hop world has been shifted once again with what is easily the biggest superstar release of 2021 so far, The Off Season, by rap’s anti-hypester J. Cole.
The Off Season came with little advance notice – just ten days separated its announced release from its arrival date (May 14). And now the Fayetteville, NC-raised superstar’s first album in three years is the most streamed, most downloaded album of the past five days – according to Spotify and iTunes, respectively.
With all twelve of its tracks streaming in the Top 20 of Spotify’s daily song charts over their first weekend and many of them remaining there during the week, it’s a foregone conclusion that The Off Season will have enough album-equivalent units (combining physical sales with digital track or album downloads plus streaming numbers) to top the next official Billboard 200 chart (dated May 29).
That would give 36-year-old Cole six career No. 1 albums in a span of ten years – going back to Cole World: The Sideline Story, his first topper back in 2011. It would also move Cole out of a five-way tie for seventh place (with DMX, 2pac, Rick Ross, and Lil Wayne) and into a two-way tie for sixth with his idol, Nas.
Numerologists take note: both Nas and J. Cole tied in sixth place with six No. 1 albums apiece. Two sixes equal twelve, the number of tracks on Cole’s latest album. The year 2012 was also the last time Nas hit No. 1. That’s the kind of stuff numbers nerds like yours truly geek over, but I digress slightly.
Back to J. Cole and The Off Season, when the album is officially named No. 1 this coming weekend (watch for Billboard’s announcement Sunday, May 23), only five rappers will have had more chart toppers than the artist born in Germany as Jermaine Lamarr Cole in 1985 (before rap even had its first No. 1).
At the top of the leader board is Jay-Z, the Roc Nation founder on whose label Cole records. He has 14 number ones. The next four are Eminem (10), Kanye West and Drake (both with 9) and Future (7).
That’s some hefty company for any artist to be in and it doesn’t even include the Dreamville album Revenge of the Dreamers III Cole curated in 2019, which was credited to various artists. Otherwise, he’d be tied for fifth place.
With his continued successes, Cole doesn’t have to fight for or even prove his relevance in the rap game, it’s clear he still has it. Yet it seems with each new release – and additional chart topper – he’s battling the same old question: is this brother really among the greatest rappers of all time? Does he even belong in the discussion?
Well, the numbers seem to support the argument that he is (or does), even if his staunchest critics don’t believe so. Still, as J. Cole edges ever closer to his 40s – that age milestone above which only two rappers – Jay-Z and Eminem – have had No. 1 albums, the question will become even more glaring.
While hip-hop is still a young man’s domain, Cole’s latest triumph shows that, unlike with his previous album KOD (the infamous Lil Pump beef) and aside from maybe the vaguely targeted disses in this album’s “applying.pressure” or “the.climb.back” tracks, he doesn’t have to perpetuate beefs with younger MCs to maintain or grow his audience (even if this album revisits an ancient beef with an older rapper – P. Diddy – in the song “let.go.my.hand”). That song happens to feature a prayer by the Bad Boy mogul himself, with J. Cole shamelessly pulling a page out of the “former-nemesis-showing-up-as-a-feature” playbook.
The oddly revealing and vulnerable track “let.go.my.hand” also happens to be the best song on the album in this blogger’s opinion. Even Diddy’s feature isn’t annoying (at least not to the level of his omnipresence on all those ‘90s Bad Boy tracks). And speaking of features, The Off Season has them aplenty…a slight departure from previous J. Cole sets (and his boasts of creating whole albums without them).
The presence of rappers like 21 Savage, Lil Baby, 6lack, and Bas only add to the album’s appeal, with some critics calling The Off Season Cole’s best. Either that or it’s at least in the conversation.
It’s inevitable, however, that Cole won’t be taking up residency at the top of the charts forever, or even with the regularity of much-younger rappers, especially if he waits another three years between releases like he did this time. Fortunately, fans may not have to wait that long to find out – The Off Season is reportedly a setup for his next already-completed full-length album, The Fall Off, which could be released as early as this summer.
If The Fall Off isn’t a self-prophecy and manages to also top the chart, it would be Cole’s seventh No. 1 album, moving him into a fifth-place tie with Atlanta-rapper Future.
But even if that album doesn’t keep his No. 1 streak alive, his second career – that of a professional basketball player – was just launched this week. Just two days after The Off Season dropped, Cole made his professional debut – at age 36 – in the Basketball Africa League playing for the Rwanda Patriots.
Playing against Nigeria’s Rivers Hoopers, he finished with three points, three rebounds and two assists in 18 minutes of game play. Not too bad for a brother’s first time out in a foreign league with age 40 closer ahead than 30 is behind.
The next day he dropped the video for “amari,” a single from The Off Season.
Like rookie-season b-balling, hip-hop may still be a young man’s domain, but don’t tell that to J. Cole, who would clearly have something to say about it.
DJRob is a freelance music blogger from somewhere on the East Coast who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff! You can follow him on Twitter at @djrobblog.
You can also register for free to receive notifications of future articles by visiting the home page (see top for menu).