MUSIC

"Revenge of the Dreamers III" Is a  Hip-Hop Experiment Done Right

This Dreamville Records mega-compilation showcases both amazing talent and the spirit of hip-hop.

343 elite hip-hop artists were invited to appear at Tree Sound Studios in Atlanta, Georgia for 10 days of nonstop music-making. 142 songs were recorded in that time, 257.65 GB of music.

This is what the Revenge of the Dreamers III sessions looked like: one-part chaos, two-parts competition, and a whole lot of creative fun—at least according to the project's coinciding documentary. During this 10-day marathon, there were 12 separate studio setups for artists and producers to wander in and out. Each recording space functioned as its own unique and constantly shifting world. With so many talented individuals roaming the halls and feeding off whatever energies pulled them in, everybody felt an unspoken pressure to step their game up, vying not only for artistic space in a packed recording session, but also inrying to write something dope enough to make the album's final cut. This pressure appeared to stoke, rather than stifle, creativity.

"It's a frenzy," Dreamville artist Omen said in the documentary, addressing the sessions' vibe of healthy competition. "First of all, you gotta find your room, your spot, where you're gonna set up—whether that's writing, making a beat—because it's so many people coming through, and them spots get snatched up…And it's studios all around here, but, I mean, within probably 30 minutes, they might be all taken."

Once the creative frenzy finally came to an end, 18 songs were chosen out of the 142 recorded to appear on the final cut of Revenge of the Dreamers III. The end result featured 34 artists and 27 producers. Of those 18 songs, not a single one flopped or felt like filler, but this should come as no surprise. When you start with such a massive mountain of music inspired by such a uniquely dynamic and collaborative process, success is almost inevitable.

In addition to Dreamville co-founder and veteran emcee, J. Cole, ROTD III also showcases the breadth of the label's eclectic and talented roster: J.I.D., Bas, Omen, Cozz, Lute, Ari Lennox, EARTHGANG, and in-house producer, Elite. Since the album is a Dreamville Records compilation, these artists are the glue that holds everything together, offering a sort of stylistic motif in a crowded list of features that would otherwise risk sounding chaotic and without direction.

ROTD III also features Reason (of Kendrick Lamar's Top Dawg Entertainment fame), Young Nudy, T.I., Ski Mask the Slump God, Smokepurpp, Smino, Ty Dolla $ign, Saba, and Vince Staples (to name a few). So, this album is star-studded as a summer blockbuster, but what really stands out about this impressive guest list are the creative opportunities born from putting all these artists in one building for days on end—we get collaborations and truly fun moments that, had this album been recorded more traditionally, may have never been possible.

One such standout moment comes in the form of J.I.D. teaming up with T.I. for one of only two duets on the record (the other comes in the form of J. Cole with Young Nudy). Their track, "Ladies, Ladies, Ladies" is a buoyant spin on the Jay-Z classic, "Girls, Girls, Girls," in which J.I.D. runs through a list of the diverse range of women he's been with and the unique issues each one presented him. Then T.I. takes the second verse, prefacing it by playfully nodding to how much longer he's been around: "Young n----, you don't know nothing 'bout no bitches. Listen…" The track is a collaboration that we never knew we needed, and the two emcees bridge this generational divide smoothly.

Another powerful collaboration comes in the form of Reason and Cozz at the end of "LamboTruck," as they plot to rob their respective label-heads. Reason throws the idea out, rhyming, "Cozz, look, I done been broke too long / n----, bills too long, can't hide that, n---- / Cole just pulled up in a Lamborghini truck / On the homies and God, we should rob that n----." After Cozz takes issue with the plan, citing his allegiance to Cole, Reason offers another solution to the problem: "Look, let's make a deal / While I go and rob Cole, you go rob Top / Cool," Cozz agrees. This back and forth is the rare collaborative fire that ROTD III opens itself up to in its unprecedented approach to making a mixtape.

At the heart of this album is something that is at the heart of hip-hop itself: an element of fun and mutually beneficial competition for the greater good. The recording sessions at Sound Tree functioned as a microcosm of what it's like to try and make it in rap—throwing hundreds of talented people together into a shared space, all of them vying for their chance to shine. In the end, everyone grows creatively by their desire to surpass the bar set by their peers and predecessors. The whole of the culture is pushed forward every time one artist takes a step toward greatness. And in mirroring this, ROTD III translates into one of the most organic, enjoyable, and authentic hip-hop albums of the decade.

Culture Feature

All Your Favorite Childhood Brands Support Black Lives Matter

Black people can't feel safe in America just by playing Pokemon or building LEGOs.

The Pokemon Company

During times of hardship, we tend to gravitate towards nostalgia as a form of comfort and escapism.

Playing Pokemon games or building LEGO sets can transport us back to a time when life felt less complicated, but the sad truth is that those simpler times were always an illusion, and not every child had the privilege of living in that sort of bubble.

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Music Reviews

Mereba Takes You On A Journey of Self Discovery

The Jungle Is The Only Way Out, her debut album, is a gorgeous genre-kaleidoscope centering on love, pain, and rebuilding.

Theo Jemison

There is a profound difference between an escape and a journey, and Marian Mereba knows that better than anyone.

The title of Mereba's debut project, The Jungle Is The Only Way Out, sounds like a warning, but its intended as a statement of fact. The album takes for granted that struggle, pain, and loss are inevitable in this life. On "dodging the devil," one of the album's spoken-word interludes, this struggle takes on a physical form as Mereba confronts the devil himself. From the bitterness in her voice, it's clear she knows him all too well. But then, the interlude draws to an end, and in her clear and unshaken voice, she closes: "The Devil's been lied to / The Devil could die too."

For Mereba, rebuilding one's self is inevitable. She takes the trials and tribulations of her life and unrolls them into a journey, a story to be told. It's not about pretending she never went through pain, but knowing that pain is behind her and is a part of who she is, for better or worse. Mereba centers herself, the ways she's loved and lost, in this lesson, and the album's inimitable and genre-less sound flows out from her.

Usually, when a review notes an album's blend of genres, it's to comment on how that blend exists for its own sake, working as juxtaposition or as testament to the flexibility of the genres combined. But Mereba even-handedly pulls from R&B, blues, folk, soul, and hip-hop—arguably, the pinnings of American music itself—and the album never feels as though she's just experimenting for the hell of it. There's a string arrangement and a chorus behind her on "Get Free," a muffled synth and early-2010s vocal distortion on "Highway 10," and a dramatic spaghetti Western guitar undergirding the deliberate R&B paranoia on "Heatwave"—and it all makes gorgeous sense. The Jungle… is the sound of Mereba constructing her sound for the listener in real time, decades of music hurtling together to create these forty minutes, on Mereba's tempo.

Beginning with the prayer-like "more," Mereba celebrates the salve of self-love, breaking free of a damaging relationship, and what she's gone through to become the artist she's always wanted to be—and that's just the first four tracks. "Black Truck" is mesmerizing, as she spells out her resilience in verses over a booming drum. She plays unbreakable as well as she plays vulnerable, and The Jungle…'s emotional life is only ever on her terms. The one-two punch of "Heatwave" and "Get Free" is devastating, and purposefully so. "Heatwave" is the sound of fear, seething with the threat of police brutality and violence, Mereba's vocals a warning rising above a city street, as 6LACK's guest verse perfectly balances on the line of entrancing and haunting. On "Get Free," meanwhile, Mereba counters the fear with the album's central maxim: "Not trying to get by / I'm trying to get free." It's a promise to herself in the face of everything that could be taken from her. Again, Mereba focuses on the inevitability of rebuilding and moving on, but here it's a gift, not a mission, and the song's impeccable arrangement only makes the message more of a blessing.

"My One" is a moving love letter to music itself, and to the relationship she's had with it since she was a child. It's a simple song, compared to the rest of the album, but it's a deeply felt performance— she speaks to music as a constant grace she can count on, the language she uses for the unspeakable.

Nowhere else on the album is Mereba's unadulterated talent clearer than on "Planet U," one of the album's first singles given new life on the tracklist. It's a glorious song, massive in its sonic scope yet gentle in its caressing lyrics. After nine tracks of searching for a love worth her energy, Mereba's joy in finally finding a partner is palpable. Mereba remains in control, painfully so, when this love falls apart over the next two tracks. "Stay Tru" sounds dreamy, but it's still a warning to her lover not to stray, implying it'd be his loss if he did.

The caution turns to desolation on "Sandstorm," a duet with frequent collaborator JID. The Atlanta rapper surprisingly and heartbreakingly echoes Mereba, assuming the role of her lover as they tell the story of a relationship crumbling in their hands. Given sorrowful life by a melancholic piano, "Sandstorm" reminds the listener of the cyclical role love can take on, a revolution of bliss and pain alike. By the time the album closer, "Souvenir," rolls around — folk laid over thundering drum in the distance — the listener understands that Mereba is as on her own as she was at the start, but it's not a setback. "I'm leaving Samsara," she calls over the final notes of the album. Loss is never the end for Mereba. It's another step forward in her journey.

The Jungle Is The Only Way Out sounds like joy and suffering holding hands. Mereba embraces the openness of what's to come while acknowledging the weight of what's been left behind. "Toss back time like shots with me," Mereba beckons towards the album's end; "nothing loved is lost." There's a feeling throughout The Jungle… that you're lucky to even be here, to listen to Mereba unfold, discover, and create herself.

The Jungle Is The Only Way Out




Matthew Apadula is a writer and music critic from New York. His work has previously appeared on GIGsoup Music and in Drunk in a Midnight Choir.


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