Monday, July 8, 2019

album review: 'revenge of the dreamers iii' by dreamville

So I don't tend to cover label or posse collaborations projects, and believe it or not, I actually do have a reason. They're rarely focused or well-curated, the spread of talent isn't all that consistent, and it can be tough to pin down the exact mood of the thing, especially if you've got a collaboration with a bunch of bonafide spitters. Because on the one hand, they're trying to go bar-for-bar and there's some level of intensity... but on the other hand, it's all supposed to be casual and making a few moments of magic in the studio while you pass the blunt around, which can lead to some real tonal dissonance.

And if anything, I expected that to be all the more pronounced on the newest Dreamville collaboration. Now full disclosure, I did go back to hear the first two, and while they both had some striking moments, it was exactly what you'd expect from a label headed up by J. Cole, where in addition to my other issues, the early criticism is that a lot of his acts either sounded like him or were R&B singers - not always the best thing when the songs started losing focus. And given that I'm not the biggest J. Cole fan by any metric, I didn't have high expectations for Revenge Of The Dreamers III - yeah, J. Cole is in a very different space than he was in 2015 and he has a more diverse and well-rounded group around him, but I hadn't been impressed by the song that had charted and I wasn't really buying into the hype. Sure, it's longer - have to get those streams somehow - but isn't the point of a label collaboration to emphasize and promote that talent, not bring in guest appearances from over a dozen other acts?

But fine, this is going to be one of those overblown collaborations trying to simultaneously create hype and sound relaxed and creative, so again, low expectations... but what did we get out of Revenge Of The Dreamers III?

So I'll be blunt, this is a little tougher to process than I expected, mostly because not only did the majority of my predictions come true in how this follows the previous two Revenge Of The Dreamers projects, I'm left wondering if at some point for as much hype was placed around the recording sessions they realized there was less here than they needed to make it stick. And more to the point, for as many striking moments as we got from the Dreamville roster, you got as many if not more standouts from the guests which would make you think Dreamville becomes more of a facilitator rather than positioning as a dominant label... but even then, I feel like there's a weird lack of payoff to this facilitation, leading to an album that's okay enough, but seems to flounder in its task to do actually do something. 

Because let's ask the hard question: what is Revenge Of The Dreamers III actually trying to do? I'll be generous and say that this album isn't trying to have much of a cohesive theme or overarching point, that's a rarity for collaborations, so let's just ask what this project wants to do. If it's meant to give every artist on his label a unique moment to shine on their own... well, outside of Cole himself I'd say that's hit-and-miss at best, given just how many voices are in the kitchen and how many of them aren't signed to Dreamville. Let's get real for a second: as much as I liked the soulful opener 'Under The Sun', was Cole's verse the one getting the attention or the fact that DaBaby kind of stole the show with Kendrick Lamar of all people on the hook? I liked J.I.D on 'Ladies, Ladies, Ladies', but I can't be the only one who thinks that Dreamville had no idea how to maximize his strengths because on that song you get T.I. swooping in for a smooth verse and an outro. This was also an issue on 'Down Bad' which I've already discussed on Billboard BREAKDOWN and while it's grown on me almost entirely thanks to the hook from J.I.D, it's not structured to pay off the best verses here, and 'Oh Wow...Swerve' literally has his verse fade out where Maxo Kream managed to be more interesting after the beat switch and J. Cole's hypocritical rambling - how can you say you're not judging anyone when just a few lines earlier you're judging girls for being brand-focused and superficial, and are you really going to drop that when there are flexing songs on this album? But circling back to showcasing the roster... again, I can't be the only one who thinks it looks some type of way for Dreamville when you have a song like 'Remembrant...Run It Back' where J.I.D and J. Cole both show up and then Vince Staples at his most yelping and nasal takes the final verse, or how Ari Lennox and Ty Dolla $ign might have good interplay until Dreezy shows up to drop her best verse in years - where the hell was that on Big Dreez? And that's not getting to the moments where Smino and Saba cut loose on the closing track 'Sacrifices' - although Smino probably shouldn't say how he can smell a girl's pussy - or where Two-9 and Ski Mask The Slump God take their outsized charisma to work on 'Costa Rica', or how Buddy's borderline cartoonish presence keeps sucking up the air across his songs. Keep in mind these are not Dreamville acts but they're attracting the most attention, and in some cases are given more airtime than your established MCs like Bas and Cozz, and that's before I remain consistently underwhelmed by Omen and Lute sounding like lesser versions of J. Cole himself - if you're allowing your own roster to get outshined, that's a problem! But what wound up being far more telling was a smaller moment on 'Costa Rica', where J.I.D jokes about getting mistaken for Swae Lee... only for Guapdad 4000, who sounds like a Swae Lee wannabe, to yelp through the hook - and again, he's got a more recognizable vocal presence and isn't signed to Dreamville!

But okay, let's frame the question a different way: who from Dreamville does benefit on this project? Honestly, while I'd argue that EARTHGANG gets some space to step out and I think Cozz and Reason have some fun interplay on the lightly treasonous 'LamboTruck' - a great moment if only for its audacity - the strongest beneficiary seems to be J. Cole himself. He's on nearly half the tracks, he's the only act besides EARTHGANG who gets a solo entry - though it's with the thoroughly underwhelming 'MIDDLE CHILD' that was clearly placed to juice streaming numbers - and his aesthetic blankets the entire album... and like with the previous collaborations, that might be one of the biggest factors why this isn't nearly as interesting or punchy as it should be. Yes, across the board the flows are consistent - Dreamville certainly can recruit a lot of competence - but if you're looking for the moments of punchy wordplay or payoff to a lot of small connective references or even much in the way of storytelling, it's hard not to feel like this album is sorely lacking, especially when it comes to unique content or any sort of credible insight. But even if you're just looking for him to chill and throw down fun bars with ease and just goof off, I'm not really sure you're getting that, because you get cuts like '1993' where Buddy is trying to get them to smoke and not rap, and yet when I hear underwhelming sex references from damn near the entire crew including J. Cole, I almost agree! Hell, for the presumed leader of the crew, it's a bad sign when I take a look at his actual flexing and tend to find it dry, underweight, and generally lacking any sense of menace or flair - I get you had to give Young Nudy something, but 'Sunset' is forgettable gunk with an okay bit of melody on the hook, and given how you're ending out 'Sacrifices' trying to bring up what was given up to make this following a pretty damn good verse from Saba, you tell your girl you want to damn near kill her so you can be the one to build her up even as you emphasize your success and shout how much you love her and your son to end things off - so what's the sacrifice here again? Again, it's endemic to this project: a lot of planting, an utter lack of proper payoff.

But again, maybe I'm overthinking all of this again, maybe it's just a project to vibe out on flows and bars, that's it - it's not like Dreamville has been positioned as a conscious, forward-thinking label or something fronted by a rapper who has built his reputation on being 'deep' or something, but fine, maybe you just need to relax and take it in? Well, this is where we get to the production - which like for most of J. Cole's music throughout the past few years, feels increasingly colourless, discordant, and not really cultivating much of a consistent vibe thanks to an influx of slapdash mixing, blown out filters, and percussion that sounds cheaper and of a lower fidelity and quality than the rest of the mix! And what this leads to is a gritty, stiffer sound that implies a more serious, intense vibe, and when the melodic hooks are not as prominent, it only draws more attention to the wordplay that might flow well but that you expect to say more. Now I'll give them some credit for some tricks of the lyrical cadence that make the hooks stickier - I brought up 'Sunset' for J. Cole and even 'Down Bad' with J.I.D's hook has grown on me, although I'd argue Kendrick still runs away with this on 'Under The Sun' - but the cuts that wind up working the best are just the one with more richness and loose organic tone. It might just be a raucous and ignorant interlude, but 'Wells Fargo' and its loose, shouting gang vibe is probably the most actual fun anyone seems to be having here, and yet beyond that? On the one hand I do like the scratchy soul samples backing tunes like 'Under The Sun', the dusty bass of '1993' and 'Sacrificed', the washed out chipmunked knock of 'Got Me', and even if it sounds really damn off-key I can even vibe with 'Self-Love'. But on the flip-side, when you get the grainy but tinny oscillations of 'Don't Hit Me Right Now', the fractured off-key melodies that still wind up anchoring 'PTSD' and 'Sleep Deprived', even if I like the percussion groove in the former case, the warping chipmunk sample behind 'Ladies Ladies Ladies' and the gargled fragment of guitar behind 'Sunset', you often hit just as many ugly or discordant tones as you do good ones, and it only further muddies the overall mood, none of which is helped by this project running over an hour with about as many lyrical ideas to sustain a project half its length.

But to summarize... look, the more listens I gave this project the more I think its priorities were misaligned, especially in comparison with the first two Dreamville compilations. For as much hype was generated around this project, it's a mess of clashing tones, slapdash production, and a lack of focus surrounding Dreamville's roster in favour of guest appearances that can sometimes steal the show. Yeah, the flows are nice, but what the flows add to feels underwhelming in depth and intensity - hate to say it, but the smaller scope of the previous two compilations might have been their saving grace; still unfocused, but the moments sparkled all the brighter. And for someone who has never bought into the J. Cole cult of personality, this failed to convince me, and while I'm giving it a strong 5/10, my recommendation is that you find the guest appearances that might appeal to you and just take those. Beyond that... yeah, Dreamville fans only here, or just wait for the album bomb.

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