Status Ain't Hood

J. Cole’s All-Star Dreamville Rap Camp Makes Beautiful Chaos

There have been rap camps before. In the sessions for his album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Kanye West famously flew basically all the artists he liked out to Hawaii, hung a “What would Mobb Deep Do?” sign on the studio wall, and tried to figure out whether he could create any magic. He could. A few years ago, people like the Alchemist and Mac Miller opened up their home studios to multiple generations of rappers, which led to some fascinating and unexpected collaborations. And, of course, virtually every major rap crew from before, say, 2000 had to record together in a group environment, since emailing each other verses wasn’t really an option yet. In the music from a lot of those crews — the Juice Crew, Death Row, Wu-Tang, Roc-A-Fella, No Limit, Ruff Ryders, Cash Money, all of them — you can hear the energy and excitement and competition of a bunch of young artists holed up together, trying to outdo each other and push each other further. That’s something we don’t hear too often anymore.

At the beginning of 2019, J. Cole set out to change that. Cole and his Dreamville label hosted their own rap camp at an Atlanta studio over 10 days this January. They made a whole deal out of it, sending physical invitations out to all the artists who they liked enough to bring in. Rappers and producers started posting those invitations online, treating them like they were Hogwarts acceptance letters. If you were invited, that alone meant bragging rights. Cole and his camp kept things catholic and wide-open, bringing in a crazy array of artists from across the rap landscape. All of these rappers descended upon Atlanta, running around a big recording studio, everyone doing their best to make an impression and to take over whatever songs happened to be coming together near them. There wasn’t enough room for everyone. The sessions, all documented in the pretty-great YouTube documentary Revenge, look both chaotic and fun.

This past week, we got to hear what came out of those sessions when Dreamville finally released the Revenge Of The Dreamers III compilation. The two previous Revenge Of The Dreamers, from 2014 and 2015, were Dreamville-only label comps, chances for Cole to show off his solid-enough roster. A lot of the new Revenge is still a Dreamville label comp, and that’s not a bad thing, as Cole’s roster has grown to include exciting figures like J.I.D, EarthGang, and Ari Lennox. But the magic of the album is the instability, the idea that any number of voices could suddenly show up next on a fast, chattering, urgent new posse cut.

You could make a pretty great album just with the people who came to the Revenge sessions and didn’t even show up on the album: Westside Gunn and Benny The Butcher, Lil Baby, Meek Mill, Young M.A, Big K.R.I.T., Curren$y, Cousin Stizz, Isaiah Rashad, BJ The Chicago Kid, even Ludacris. Tay Keith, Kenny Beats, and Mike Will Made-It were sitting there all week making beats, and none of those beats are on the album. Plenty of other rappers are on the album but don’t really get enough room to make much of an impression: Saba, Key!, Ski Mask The Slump God. (They all sound strong when they’re there, but they all leave things on the table.) Rappers have already started sniping at each other over who made it onto the album and who didn’t. That’s just the way it is. There’s limited space. At least 124 songs came out of those sessions. The album only had 18 tracks. Hopefully, more will show up eventually.

For an album like this, the best thing is hearing who steals the show, at least for a verse at a time. So on opening track “Under The Sun,” Cole’s fellow North Carolinian DaBaby comes though and snatches the song out from under his nose, and it’s thrilling to behold. (Those sessions happened in January, so credit Cole and company with being early on DaBaby, 2019’s biggest new rap star.) Maxo Kream, in his sole appearance on the album, utterly monsters his way through the back half of “Oh Wow… Swerve”: “Go Go Gadget, toting ratchets, beam attachment to the side / I keep a savage that’ll blast it, my crash dummies down to ride.” Vince Staples gets a quick second to shine, but he does it with this weird yelled-out delivery that’ll stick with you for a while.

Sometimes, you can pinpoint the exact line that solidifies a rapper’s place on the album. For instance, Mez, who was all over Dr. Dre’s Compton a couple of years ago and then disappeared from my radar completely, comes through with this: “Not a nigga that you wanna argue with / Cuz then you fucking with your future like Larsa Pippen, shit.” Other times, rappers get over through sheer spirit and energy, bringing speed and enthusiasm that helps float the rest of the album. J.I.D, Buddy, and the two EarthGang rappers, are all over both the album and the documentary, which is not a coincidence. They all brought their A-games, and they all had fun with it, more or less taking over the sessions at every turn. It would be a mistake to call them the breakouts of the album, since all of them were already known quantities. But it’s striking how they spent a weekend in a studio full of heavyweights and still managed to impose their will on the finished album.

This being a Dreamville compilation, there are slow spots. Certain rappers come off solid but still fade into the background. A few too many songs drift into serious territory, delving into trials and tribulations when the spirit of the thing seems to work against that. Some tracks are just straight-up neo-soul — lovely in isolation, slightly numbing in the context of this exploding-with-energy album. The entire thing is loose and unfocused, but that’s not really a complaint. That’s how it should be. In fact, the album suffers the most when it’s at its most conventional. Cole’s early-2019 hit “Middle Child,” for instance, is a good song, but it doesn’t need to be here. There’s too much else happening. And the album works best when it stays relentlessly ADD, when it refuses to let your attention drift.

As for Cole himself, he mostly maintains the focus and momentum he’s had going all year. In that documentary, Cole complains that he’s had to spend the first few days of the session playing camp counselor, that it takes a while for him to get around to writing actual raps. There’s also a bit in the video where one of the artists in the session attempts to get a photo with the haggard-looking Cole, where Cole has to beg off. He’s the biggest star in the room. Sometimes, he seems like the only adult, too. But when he does rap, he brings speed and presence and authority. He sounds like what he is: The figure at the center of this self-created rap whirlwind, an environment of his own making.

It recently came to my attention that I have, in the past, compared J. Cole to both “Cheerios without milk” and “a Dylan McDermott performance.” As Cole was becoming a star, all I heard in him was workmanlike competence masquerading as depth. Part of that was me — my own aesthetic proclivities convincing me to see only the most boring sides of a rapper who was both gifted and extremely popular. But part of it was also Cole himself, carrying him like an old man when he was still on the come-up.

Not that long ago, Cole was making finger-wagging advice songs, directing them at younger rappers. It was a bad look for a guy too young to be stogy. So it’s a pleasure to see Cole shake that off — to share space, for instance, South Florida SoundCloud-rapper and Lil Pump associate Smokepurpp, who claims that he’s got your baby’s mother doing drugs in the moshpit. Cole has adjusted and amassed a whole army of rappers, friends and familiars, on this whole rap-camp escapade. Not long ago, Cole merely sounded grave. On Revenge Of The Dreamers III, he’s got gravitas. That’s a whole different thing.

FURIOUS FIVE

1. Mavi – “Sankofa | Warning”
Dense headblown beauty from a North Carolina teenager who is smart enough to let his voice float on the breeze. This kid deserves your attention.

2. Westside Gunn – “Lakers Vs. Rockets” (Feat. Sauce Walka)
Westside Gunn’s new album Flygod Is An Awesome God is consistent and satisfying guttural rap shit, the type of thing that the Griselda crew has conditioned us to expect. But its most thrilling moment its final one, when the Houston bellowers Sauce Walka smashes through this dense fog of a DJ Muggs beat, yelling the paint off the ceiling. I love the whole headblown post-boom-bap East Coast underground to death, but it could really use a guy like Sauce Walka, someone ready to shake shit up more often.

3. Pouya – “Cyanide” (Feat. Ghostemane)
The South Got Something To Say, the new album from scabby and gifted Miami dirtbag Pouya, is deeply solid throughout. But I always like Pouya the best when the pseudo-punk screamer Ghostemane is next to him. For whatever reason, those two always sound their hardest when they’re together.

4. PeeWee Longway – “Craigslist”
Two things that have not changed in the past seven years or so: PeeWee Longway is still a great source of stutterying, cartoonish Atlanta rap, and Craigslist is still a great place to buy a used bookshelf or whatever.

5. Jackboy – “Not A Clone”
Triumphant Floridian groaning about beating a case over gothic 808 gurgles. Rap music is the best.

IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO