This week, J. Cole and his Dreamville label released Revenge, an insightful documentary that gave viewers a fly in the wall perspective of the conception of their Revenge Of The Dreamers III album, the star-studded project which is dropping tomorrow and already has a slew of singles out. Fans had been privy to real-time tweets and journalist accounts about the Atlanta sessions, which featured a diverse array of invitees from Vince Staples and Ski Mask The Slump God to producers T-Minus and Bink!. But the visuals offered an even deeper insight into the Dreamville crew’s creative dynamic.
Revenge director David Peters conveyed the tone of the creative process at Tree Sound Studios with intimate, vintage cinematography that radiated a charming sentimentality and captured the communal atmosphere of the sessions. Cole said in the documentary that his studio sessions are “always a good vibe,” and he presumably aimed for the documentary to exemplify that for fans who will never get to share the studio with him. Cole tweeted out during the sessions that he “shed tears tonight writin a verse sh*t was beautiful.”
The documentary highlights the tension and catharsis that goes into creativity, which tends to be ignored by often-entitled hip-hop fans and rap journalists who cultivate an environment where the evaluation of music isn’t remotely reciprocal between artist and listener. Who knows what true reciprocation would look like, but it’s not taking to Twitter to call an artist’s work, that took weeks or months (if not years) to create, “trash” or “mid” after a day of listening. Hip-hop fans are ravenous consumers, but collectively stingy when it comes to showing nuanced appreciation for the love that went into the figurative cooking up.
In theory, Revenge Of The Dreamers III is just another release in a rap game moving at a breakneck pace. But for the artists involved in its creation, it will forever be a sonic reminder of an unforgettable experience — no matter how we receive it. Its mere conception is a benchmark because Cole resolved to re-instill the notion of the studio as a communal village in an adversarial, digitally detached music climate where collaboration is often transactional and distant.
Joey Badass alleged in 2017 that Cole vowed not to do any more features, but the North Carolina artist has spent the past two years killing verses for everyone from tongue-twisting labelmate J.I.D to consummate lyricist Royce Da 5’9 to trap star 21 Savage. The features didn’t feel like money moves as much as efforts to show the entirety of hip-hop that there’s more to be done together. Every Funkmaster Flex rant, callout of tight jeans, and utterance of “old n—-s” by young stars further burns bridges and entrenches hip-hop’s generational and ideological divide. But the 33-year-old Cole is embracing his young OG status and constructing his own bridge toward Dreamville — where everyone’s invited.
Prominent industry figure Amir Abbasy of Blame The Label tweeted about the sessions that, “if you are a producer, engineer, artist, podcaster, journalist, manager, or anyone at the Dreamville ROTD3 sessions, and really paying attention, you may walk away from that experience with a master’s in art.” In the Revenge documentary, Dreamville artist Lute noted that “each room got a vibe each day,” and artists were roaming in between them to experience different energies.
Having so many gifted artists and producers in the same space serves a twofold purpose: it fosters the kind of collaborative and communal energy that the rap game needs to get past its generational fracture, and it also showed the young artists and producers the heightened possibilities of studio sessions that consist of conversation and collective creative energy instead of merely e-mailed verses.
That kind of environment harkens to days of hip-hop yore, where studio sessions would be full of a who’s who of hip-hop artists bouncing ideas off each other and feeding off the competitive energy. The conception of Wu-Tang Clan’s 36 Chambers and Dr. Dre’s The Chronic consisted of a room full of talented artists vying to outwrite each other and get a spot on one of RZA or Dre’s seminal productions.
Kanye West mandated that everyone who appeared on his My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy opus come to Hawaii (and wear black suits). Pharell recalled that is was Snoop Dogg’s presence that compelled him to mumble the melody that eventually became the iconic hook for “Drop It Like It’s Hot.” Pharell was so influenced by the room full of Crips with smoke in the air that he added spraypaint sounds to the production. None of those classic songs would sound the same if the artists and producers weren’t in the room together. Today’s digitized world has turned music collaboration into an email exchange, to the point where “making of” retrospectives for modern albums may consist solely of “I emailed them the beat, and they emailed the verse back” 15 times.
Cole is at the top of the steeple sales-wise, and would be just fine catering to his devout fanbase who long for his jazzy, traditionalist-leaning sound, but instead he’s thought about the collective. His KOD album employed more trap elements than his previous work, and he vied to slip the medicine in with the candy, imparting wisdom to the new generation of artists on how to make their career a marathon on controversial songs like “1985.” While the KOD’s influence remains to be seen, it’s the effort in the project and exploits like his bond-building conversation with Lil Pump that highlighted his desire to bring hip-hop together. Now, at the turn of the year, he’s done that in a physical sense for the Revenge Of The Dreamers III sessions.
Hopefully, artists who had internal biases about other rap subgenres saw each other work up close and grew newfound respect for each other’s craft, and realize how ultimately similar they are as talented artists who have the fortune of making a living in a game that’s represented one of the few opportunities of upward mobility for Black people. Before the awards and sales and label demands, they were all just aspirants in a studio, dreaming to become as successful as the artists and producers they admired, just trying to belong. The 10-day creative process, complete with “golden ticket” invitations, was an affirmation that they belong, sharing their genius in a room full of fellow hip-hop movers and shakers.
Revenge could have been a 90-minute full-length film and been just as interesting as impactful, based on the amount of talent that flowed through Tree Sound. It’s hard to believe that the star-studded project will be anything less than enjoyable — even if it needed a deeper feminine presence — but it’s already a landmark album because of Cole and Dreamville thinking outside the box and vying to unite the game on the grounds of dreaming together.
Revenge Of The Dreamers III is out July 5 on Dreamville.