Over the course of the past year or so, J. Cole has been on a victory lap through the hip-hop circuit. Unflustered by peering down avenues and B-roads that you’d never have expected to find him in, the self-proclaimed “Middle Child” has deviated from his self-contained working methods in favor of rampant inclusiveness which has built bridges where chasms of mutual mistrust had once threatened to develop. With his grip over the public’s collective imagination at an all-time high, it only made sense that he and his Dreamville label would aim to harness this extended period of collaboration into something legacy-defining. The catalyst for endless speculation on who may turn up or in what capacity, Revenge of the Dreamers III takes the series from the realm of low-budget indie flick to an undertaking of blockbuster proportions.
Considering that their 10-day studio session at Atlanta’s Tree Sound had achieved mythical status before we’d heard any music, there was a worry that all of the ‘what if’s?’ fans had cooked up would impact the enjoyment of what would actually emerge. On top of that, the premise of around 50 rappers and producers all converging on one studio led many to ponder the well-established pitfalls of having too many cooks in the kitchen. But despite any speculation to the contrary, Dreamville and their newfound allies have achieved something spectacular on ROTD3.
Opening with the evocative soul textures of “Under the Sun,” it’s only fitting that the first man to throw his hat into the ring is J. Cole, and he does so with understated flair. In a move that sets the tone for the record, his verse lulls you into a false sense of security before you’re suddenly blindsided by a scintillating chorus from Kendrick Lamar and a typically well-crafted verse from Dreamville mainstay Lute before 2019 breakout star DaBaby arrives with something to prove.
Just one example of an artist that felt compelled to bring their A-game to the table, ROTD3 consists of a melting pot of styles, cadences, and differing perspectives that pools talents together as a means of celebrating a hip-hop scene in bountiful health. Governed by utopian ideals but energized by an unquenchable competitive spirit, much of the promotional material has hinged on the notion that all of the artists had engendered a shared “vibe.” However, what the finished product reveals that it is not one singular atmosphere that typified these sessions but a more multitudinous spirit of unchecked creativity.
With Cole striking a delicate balance between instigator and participant, his preoccupations enables the project to become a breeding ground for both reaffirmations of existing potential and revelatory performances from unsung artists. Whether it was the Nina Simone-like croons of Baby Rose on “Self Love,” Buddy, Smino and Guapdad 4000 running roughshod over the entire project, or overlooked talents such as Mereba, Saba, Maxo Kream, and Omen seizing their chances to shine, these moments often outweigh the element of surprise that came from esteemed guests such as T.I.’s contributions to “Ladies, Ladies, Ladies” or Vince Staples’ self-assured verse alongside J.I.D & Cole on “Rembrandt…Run It Back.” Speaking of the East Atlanta Playboy, J.I.D is on fearsome form, bringing tracks such as “Down Bad” and “Costa Rica” to another level while he and Buddy embody the spirit of a demented Pinky & The Brain on the intro to “Wells Fargo;” it is truly something to behold.
Ascribed with unending potential by fans and critics, Earthgang’s Johnny Venus and WOWGR8 more than earn their keep and threaten to steal the show on “Swivel” before offering up star-making turns on the poignant closer “Sacrifices.” If there had ever been any concern that hooks would fall by the wayside in favor of sheer feats of rapping ability, you need only look as far as “Don’t Hit Me Right Now” and KEY!’s offering on “Oh Wow… Swerve” to shatter that preconception. In terms of sonic eclecticism, producers such as CHASETHEMONEY, ClicknPress, Bink! Elite, Ron Gilmore, Pyrex, Pluss and many others ensure that the MCs have everything from cacophonous trap (“Sunset,” “Costa Rica”) to old school boombap (“PTSD,” “Sleep Deprived”) to work off of.
Constructed around short runtimes that prevent fatigue from setting in, there are moments on top-heavy efforts such as “Down Bad,” “Costa Rica,” and “Got Me” where an artist’s contribution has just begun to whet your appetite before being abruptly cut off, but it’s a small price to pay for having so many artists all working seamlessly toward one common goal. Although it would’ve been easy for ROTD3 to come across with the disjointedness of a compilation album, one of the key common threads that appears throughout is how much fun these high-level artists are having in one another’s company. Emboldened by the communal feel, moments such as Cozz and Reason’s “Guilty Conscience”-style scheming to rob their respective label bosses on “LamboTruck” or the hyperactive, weed-obstructed japes of “1993” are playfully intimate in a way that allows the listeners to vicariously transport themselves to those fabled studio sessions.
Whether or not it was their intention, Revenge of the Dreamers III is a project that thoroughly debunks the persistent notion that hip-hop is in the throes of some apocalyptic drought as far as talent and innovation goes. Aware of their favorable position in the industry, Cole and Dreamville took it upon themselves to create a watershed moment that foregoes petty squabbles or territorialism in order to celebrate an artform that captivates millions around the world. A launching pad for future stars and another accolade in the storied career of others, this one, as they say, is for the culture.