J. Cole is changing before our very eyes. The infamous “no features”, self-reliant Cole that flourished under Jay-Z’s hands off management at Roc Nation has learned from his mentor to form a new mentality – far, far from his comfort zone. This new J. Cole is a label head first and foremost, sacrificing his own solo career and personal comfort to give his new generation of artists at Dreamville the best opportunities to succeed.
Fueled by Cole’s new-found mental and Dreamville’s ever-deepening talent pool, Revenge of the Dreamers III is poised to make its mark on history as one of the most ambitious collaborative projects to ever exist in hip-hop.
J. Cole: The Bridge Between Generations
I grew up as the middle child of my family. This meant having an older brother’s shoes to fill and a younger brother’s example to set. My parents may have made slight adjustments to their parenting approaches between my brothers and I, but for the most part, the three of us were exposed to same circumstances and given the same support.
This is where I see a little room to add a touch more nuance to Jermaine Cole’s analogy of himself as the ‘middle-child’ of today’s hip hop scene. Hip-hop changes so quickly that simplistically thinking of a legend like Jay Z as Cole’s “older brother” and the artists mentored by Cole as his “younger brothers” seems to underestimate the unique obstacles with which each generation is faced. Rather than just an older brother with some big shoes, Jay Z is more like a grandfather who raised his son Jermaine to succeed based on his own personal needs. And now, little Jermaine has developed enough to have a label of his own and be faced with decisions about how he wants to raise the next generation of artists.
There’s no denying that Jay Z’s hands-off approach with Roc Nation gave Cole the room he needed to grow into his “no features” mentality and self-made legacy. Now Cole has reached a point in his “parenting” where a father becomes self-conscious enough to reflect on his own upbringing and how he might deviate from his own father’s path. Without disregard for his own undisputed success as an artist, he has even higher aspirations for his legacy as a label head – and, as with any good parent, he’s prepared to make personal sacrifices for the benefit of his children.
J. Cole has reached a moment in time where he’s considering what’s best for the Dreamville artists under his wing and is putting their needs above his own. That drive and passion is soon to manifest itself in one of the largest collaborations in all of hip-hop history: Revenge of the Dreamers III.
Side note: The playlist below contains every previous collaboration I was able to find between all of the artists rumored or confirmed to have been involved in the ROTD3 sessions. Give it a spin while you read the article!
Jay-Z and Roc Nation give J. Cole his Shot at the Big-Time
If we can consider J. Cole to be Hov’s metaphorical son then it’s not much of a stretch to think of Roc-a-Fella as Jay’s kids from another marriage, and a marriage he certainly put more time into. Through Roc-a-Fella, Jay Z put out a string of successful records and built a highly internally collaborative dynasty of artists; like actors from Saturday Night Live, one rarely appeared on a project without a slew of appearances from the others. After presiding closely over his first label, Jay Z’s changed his approach the second time around with Roc Nation. Artists signed to Roc Nation, like Cole, experienced a more relaxed, ‘fuck it, let the kids do what they want’ type of attitude from their label head.
I’m just really here to provide the opportunity. I’m not here to do anything else. I provide the opportunity, you figure out what you want to say to the world and how you gonna do it… It’s more than just a [16-bar verse] and an endorsement deal; it’s an opportunity to let your voice be heard. It’s really about you, it’s not about me.” – Jay Z with MTV (2011)
Whether it was Jay’s own career goals occupying his time or he really felt that Cole had things taken care of, Jay’s hands-off approach didn’t hamper Cole’s success in the least. After trying things the traditional way on his own for two albums, Cole had the space he needed to shake things up.
After initially trying to break onto the scene as a producer, Cole decided to take his shot from another angle and released his debut mixtape, The Come Up, in 2007. It was the mixtape, not Cole’s beats, that eventually caught Hov’s attention.
Despite originally trying to get his work to Jay as a producer, the man who once made a “Produce for Jay Z or die trying” t-shirt, never even sees a single production credit on a Jay Z solo project. Even though Cole was able to get a feature on Jay Z’s The Blueprint 3 the same year he signed to Roc Nation, he saw his feature returned by Jay Z just a single time: on Cole’s freshman album Cole World: The Sideline Story. But that verse was something special.
From 1996-2003, guests rapped 25,393 words on Jay Z’s solo albums. Of that number, Roc-a-Fella artists rapped 10,942 words – or 43% of all guest words. Cole would be the only Roc Nation artist to ever appear on a Jay Z solo album: a verse with only for 147 words on The Blueprint 3. It’s clear that Cole wasn’t given the same close attention that Roc-a-Fella artists received, and was left more to fend for himself, a mentality that eventually helped him to grow and evolve independently of expectations.
J. Cole Changes his Approach and Challenges the Formula
Initially, Cole followed the typical album formula with reluctance, releasing a few singles to hype up the albums and adding big name features like Jay Z, Drake, Miguel, and 50 Cent to capitalize on attention from fan groups outside of his own. But he changed the formula with the surprise release of 2014 Forest Hills Drive, announced only three weeks before it dropped. No hype, no tracklist, no singles, no features; only music, just the way he had always felt it should be done.
In his first interview after 2014 Forest Hills Drive dropped, Cole told NPR:
You can listen to Born Sinner. You can listen to Sideline Story and hear it, coming out. I wasn’t happy, you know what I mean? And I had to take a step back, or take a step inside… And I realized it was the things I was holding on to… I was basing my happiness off of success, or what I thought was success. And anytime you base your — this is what the album is all about — anytime you base your happiness on something that is not real, you know what I mean? Something that’s unattainable? Or never satisfying? You can never have enough money, if money is what you seek.” – J. Cole for NPR (2014)
Cole got tired of following the traditional formula for success. He had forced himself into the the mold and still felt limited, so 2014 Forest Hills Drive was a “no-more bullshit” project. Cole would be doing things his own way from now on.
Breaking new ground lead to even greater leaps in fame and the rise of the “platinum with no features” meme. It’s safe to say that doing things his own way made Cole feel some much-wanted freedom, and his rising success despite his irregular approach certainly validated his methods. This self-validation would then lend itself to the ‘don’t ask for a feature’ mentality and Cole’s general reluctance to feel required to do anything the mainstream expected from him.
For years he’s thrived with this mentality, adding three more albums to his list of platinum albums with no features. His most recent album KOD, broke single day streaming records on both Spotify and Apple Music. His success certainly hasn’t been limited by his lack of collaboration.
One thing I appreciate about Jay-Z is he let me do it my way and let me figure it out…he never compromised or interfered with my creative process. There was never a point when he was like, ‘I need to come in and play big brother and show you how to do this.’ He let me figure it out, and it feels better to win like that. It feels better winning knowing that I figured this thing out on my own and if it wouldn’t have worked, I would have been OK with bumping my head and failing on my own terms, rather than winning on somebody else’s.” – J. Cole for The Associated Press (2012)
In hindsight, it’s clear Cole’s mentality has changed dramatically in the seven years since that interview. Cole has developed a highly respected discography for himself and is now heading his own label. He’s changed since the height of the “platinum no features” meme – and not out of any personal need. He’s doing it for his artists.
J. Cole Sacrifices for Dreamville’s New Generation
Since just this March, J. Cole has been featured on cover stories for GQ and XXL Mag, performed at the 2019 NBA All-Star Game Halftime Show, and headlined the first ever Dreamville Festival; a distinctive change in behavior from his previous attention-reluctant demeanor. While his time in the spotlight may have increased, it seems that the way Cole feels about that spotlight doesn’t exactly correlate.
Everybody hits me up. I got people texting me, like, ‘Bro, I can’t believe you’re performing the All-Star Game halftime show. Ain’t that so crazy?’ In my mind, I’m just like, ‘Bro, this feels like a job—you know what I mean?’… I don’t like center-of-attention-type moments.” – J. Cole for GQ (2019)
Cole has also gone against his established reclusive creative habits by featuring on multiple promotional singles for recent Dreamville albums and releases – including “Shea Butter Baby” with Ari Lennox, “Off Deez“ with J.I.D., “Zendaya” with Cozz and “Tribe” with Bas, as well as a single of his own, “Middle Child”. Alongside the guest features, Cole produced half of Bas’s 2018 album Milky Way, a production number that Cole has otherwise only matched on his own projects.
So why is he just now pushing back against his personal reluctance for promotion and fanfare? He’s already shown he doesn’t need to ride on publicity for his work to earn him a place in contemporary ‘top five’ debates. Cole has humbly brushed off the change of pace in his recent interviews, saying that he just doesn’t want to miss out on anything. But (in a return to the family analogy) it appears Cole’s not doing it for himself–he’s doing it for his kids, his Dreamville family. He’s biting the publicity bullet because he’s aware of what his name can do for the artists under him.
Like any parent learning between generations, Cole has definitely adopted some aspects of Jay’s hands-off method – but he’s also stepping outside himself to give his Dreamville fam the best possible opportunity to thrive. While Roc-a-Fella seemed to get an attention-heavy approach, Cole flourished under Roc Nation’s free-rein approach.
With respect for the space that Jay Z gave him to grow into his zone, Cole is paying forward that same artistic freedom to his own label. True inspiration is more accessible when artists have room to try new things and make mistakes in an environment that embraces the ebb-and-flow of the creative process without weighing it down with restraints and expectations. With that respect for the individual, Cole also knows that not everyone’s process is identical to his own and that he could learn some things too, through making some changes.
I was always from a position like, I don’t need nobody. But that way was only good for so long. It got boring after a while for me. So, watching Bas was really inspiring. It allowed me to be a person that could foster this type of environment for myself and for others, where it’s like, ‘You got an idea, n***a? Hell yeah, throw that shit on there.’” – J. Cole for XXL Mag (2019)
It’s no coincidence that the most recent additions to the Dreamville team already have three well-polished collaborative projects under the name Spillage Village. With the 2017 additions of J.I.D. and EarthGang, Cole has completed the hip-hop-label arms race and prepared for the ultimate collaborative album drop in Revenge of the Dreamers III.
Setting the Stage: Artist Roster on Revenge of the Dreamers III
The number of artists involved in the Revenge of the Dreamers III recording sessions (over 100 producers, rappers, vocalists and musicians by most counts) immediately sets the sessions apart from previous hip-hop collaboration projects. By comparison, its predecessor Revenge of the Dreamers II credited less than 20 artists. Regardless of the final tracklist for the third installation, that volume of creative capability and networking will land Dreamville in the middle of some serious artistic access.
Dreamville’s artists have already been picking up the pace since 2018 and landing all sorts of features and guest spots, generating a well-rounded image that has opened the label to reaching an intersection of demographics. Before the features from BJ the Chicago Kid, and 6LACK and Ella Mai on Dicaprio 2 and J.I.D.’s features on Mereba’s single, “Sandstorm“, and Ari Lennox’s “Broke“, I wouldn’t have considered J.I.D. to top my R&B playlist of crackling fireplace and bearskin rug burners – but sure enough “Tiiied” (feat 6LACK & Ella Mai) showed me the light.
Like a hip hop bootcamp, the intense sessions likely facilitated an environment where the artists had to get familiar quickly and open up to artistic influences outside their own; something the Spillage Village crew has been well-versed in since Bears Like This dropped in 2014. Before the recording sessions, talks placed EarthGang’s debut Dreamville album, Mirrorland, landing sometime in December 2018. It’s May now and we still haven’t heard much of Mirrorland, let alone a release date. It’s likely that EarthGang pushed the album back due to the potential for an even more refined project after learning from and working with the cast of Revenge of the Dreamers III.
The recording sessions might finally be the project that brings the new school Atlanta rappers into collaboration with old school Atlanta legend, T.I. In a feature story on EarthGang and J.I.D. for HotNewHipHop, journalist Mitch Findlay recalls J.I.D. and T.I. “exchanging verses over a smooth instrumental, tapping into the spiritual trail once blazed by Jay Z’s ‘Girls, Girls, Girls’.” It’s also not uncommon for T.I. to work with Wale, Rick Ross or Big K.R.I.T.; all of whom were also involved with the sessions alongside Cardiak, a producer that many on that list have in common. T.I. could serve to bridge the gap between Spillage Village and the hip hop icons of the 2000’s. It’s likely we’ll see some combination of these artists over production by Cardiak and K.R.I.T across Revenge of the Dreamers III and Mirrorland.
Ari Lennox’s new album release, Shea Butter Baby, however, only contained two features, each from other Dreamville artists. Since we know that Ari wouldn’t have sat out the recording sessions, it’s probably safe to expect more than a few of the features missing from her solo album popping up on Revenge of the Dreamers III. The sessions summoned a long list of talented R&B vocalists to choose from, such as BJ the Chicago Kid, Saba, 6LACK and Mereba, and Findlay’s feature story also mentions hearing snippets of Ari on a “soulful song about a relationship gone astray,” with Smino, Buddy and King Mez.
As for the rest of Dreamville, Revenge of the Dreamers III could also be an excellent opportunity to showcase some unheard internal collaborations. EarthGang’s sound would’ve fit right in on Bas’s vibe-heavy album Milky Way, and it’s been awhile since we’ve heard anything from Lute, who is rumored to appear on the album alongside Cole on a track titled “Dog Catchers” that was partially leaked by Dreamville co-founder Ibrahim Hamad on Instagram. Another suggested track with Cole features Drake and Young Nudy over an unheard beat produced by CHASETHEMONEY.
It’s impossible to outline explicitly what the album might look or sound like due to the volume of artists involved, but this playlist contains almost every previous collaboration I was able to find between any of the artists rumored or confirmed to have been involved in the sessions. The variety is immense but one thing the tracks have in common is the quality. Cole certainly possess the eyes and ears of an ambitious label head.
Breaking down Dreamville’s recent power moves sets a stage not just for the success of Revenge of the Dreamers III, but for Dreamville artists as a whole. Cole has been carefully selecting his team since 2007, biding his time and using his name to help put on a meticulously chosen crew that he felt shared his passion.
Cole is getting out of his comfort zone with some of the best motivation there is; a father’s motivation to see his kids achieve even higher levels than himself. Cole’s adopted a ‘leave no stone unturned’ stance for 2019 and his magnetic personality means that energy likely goes double for the rest of the Dreamville squad– that level of single-minded focus can only be contagious.