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The easiest concepts to execute are often the simplest. Sometimes it’s easy to forget straightforward truths like this one, especially in creative spaces like music. There’s such a glut of new music, it almost feels impossible to stand out from the constant churn. Facing that kind of erasure, it’s no wonder recording artists, especially rappers, have felt increased pressure to chase complicated concepts and pile on ever-weirder gimmicks to get attention, dragging them further away from the so-simple-it’s-almost-dumb conceit at the core of rap’s massive success: Rhyme well over a dope beat.
Ironically, the best music is created when the simplest ideas are executed well. The motive behind Revenge Of The Dreamers III, the latest compilation album from J. Cole’s Dreamville Records crew, was as simple as it gets. Cole wanted to upend the “platinum with no features” meme that has followed him — some might say “plagued” — since his 2014 Forest Hills Drive accomplished just that. To that end, he had the idea of putting his Dreamville cohorts in the studio with some of today’s biggest producers and fellow rappers in the hopes that they would push the music in new, unexpected, and interesting directions.
His hope was fulfilled. At its heart, Revenge Of The Dreamers III is a record of multiple cipher sessions, the staple of hip-hop music, wherein a group of rappers trades verses and ideas, playing their verses and concepts off one another and competing to impress and surprise their participating peers. And just like the rap crews that inspired Dreamville’s creation — Native Tongues, Wu-Tang Clan, Flipmode Squad, Ruff Ryders, and Roc-a-Fella Records — all had massive posse cuts that showcased this chemistry, Dreamville replicated and expanded on that idea for their compilation. Drawing energy from their massive guestlist and a simple mandate, the stars of Dreamville crafted a project that delivers on its promise.
Think back to the iconic posse cuts of hip-hop lore: “Buddy,” “Scenario,” “Affirmative Action,” “Flava In Ya Ear,” “Simon Says,” “Special Delivery,” “Beasts From The East,” “Twice Inna Lifetime,” “Banned From TV,” “4, 3, 2, 1,” “Live At The Barbecue,” and “Triumph.” Imagine all those mashed together, then caffeinated like an undergrad pulling an all-nighter. That’s the general vibe of Revenge III, which is mainly a collection of 3 AM cipher session clippings that range from hyperactive, pass-the-mic freestyles (“Down Bad,” “Costa Rica”) to soulful concept records (“Self Love,” “Got Me”). The loose, free-flowing vibe of the much-hyped, week-long recording session is palpable on “1993,” “Rembrandt… Run It Back,” and “Wells Fargo,” which feature beats and hooks that wouldn’t have been out of place on a Dungeon Family compilation — an appropriate influence, considering the shared Southern origin of many of Dreamville’s principals and collaborators.
It’s those collaborators that elevate Revenge from being a simple compilation into something original. Where compilation albums from the likes of Roc-A-Fella lived and died on the strengths of the artists housed within the labels themselves and were generally carried by the star power of their marquee artist (a la The Dynasty: Roc La Familia, which is often considered part of Jay-Z’s catalog despite its classification as a compilation album), Dreamville trades bars with some of their fellow emerging stars, creating stunning opportunities like the tongue-in-cheek stick-up narrative of “LamboTruck” or the pointed introspection of “Sacrifices.”
Few of the standout tracks require appearances from J. Cole, while every main Dreamville artist gets at least one hero moment. 2018 breakout JID appears on no less than five of the album’s most electrifying cuts, while Bas, Cozz, Lute, Omen, and Earthgang more than carry their weight. But it’s when the guests bring their own indelible quirks to the proceedings that things genuinely light up. Buddy’s screwball haranguing on “1993,” Maxo Kream’s chest-thumping at the end of “Oh Wow… Swerve,” and Dreezy’s rapping rings around her collaborators on “Got Me” are moments that couldn’t happen on a more insular project.
In fact, if there’s any complaint to be had, it’s a most unusual one after critics and fans alike spent much of 2018 begging for mercy from rappers who kept releasing long projects. This is one time the 18 tracks we were given don’t feel like enough. These artists spent a week straight recording, vibing, and trading ideas. Revenge Of The Dreamers III may represent what J. Cole and Dreamville President Ibrahim Hamad considered the best representation of that week, but knowing that there are so many more songs out there — that Dreezy and Yung Baby Tate may have contributed even more verses, that Mez and Vince Staples probably have a few extra appearances lying around, that the Atlanta-bred members of the crew likely have their own track as stunning as the NC-centric “Under The Sun” — will keep the hip-hop faithful clamoring for a Revenge Of The Dreamers IV.
Revenge Of The Dreamers III is out now via Dreamville/Interscope Records. Get it here.