In the beginning of 2019, J. Cole did something unexpected: the head honcho of Dreamville sent out a mass invite for artists and producers to join him and his team for 10-day rap camp recording sessions in Atlanta for his label's highly-anticipated Revenge of the Dreamers III compilation tape with the intent of getting as many features on the album as possible. The announcement of the recording sessions instantly built hype on social media as a big-ticket event in hip-hop. The resulting super-compilation tape demonstrates that J. Cole has finally mastered the art of collaboration.
J. Cole isn't a stranger to doing his own thing. His last three albums purposefully had no guest features, relying heavily on J. Cole's own production. Although Forest Hills Drive, 4 Your Eyez Only, and KOD brought the rapper great success, his sermonizing messages and lyrics actively differentiating himself from this generation's "mumble rappers" has made him one of rap's most polarizing figures.
If you love J. Cole, it's likely that you think his self-righteous rap aesthetic makes him one of the greatest artists of this generation, but if you don't, it's likely that you think his style has made it easy to dismiss his music as boring. His feud with current rappers took center stage on "1985" (from 2018's KOD), where he cautions younger rappers about the harsh realities of the rap game and expresses how unimpressed he is with their music: "I'm fuckin' with you funky lil rap name/ I hear your music and I know that rap's changed/ A bunch of folks would say that that's a bad thing."
Although J. Cole's "fuck the industry" stance has been a constant throughout his career, the rapper has seemed to shift gears of late. He's suddenly collaborated with artists that he seems like he would have ridiculed three years ago (like last year's feature on 21 Savage's "a lot"), become more active on social media, and is less limiting on the production end (his latest single "Middle Child" features unexpected Auto-Tune.) Also on "Middle Child", J.Cole's highest charting single, the rapper addresses his critics and promises to prove them wrong.
Revenge of the Dreamers III does just that. In the nearly 30-minute documentary for the album, J.Cole opens by admitting how he wants to start working for more artists: "I'm reaching the point in my career over this past year, like, bro, I don't want to look back 20 years from now and be like, 'I've never worked with nobody and never had no fun.'"
The 18-track album is the summer blockbuster that hip-hop needed—and it's exactly what a compilation album should sound like. Every single on the album could easily be named its best song. While it's is stacked with features from artists like DaBaby, Smino, Buddy, Ty Dolla $ign, Dreezy, and more, the album also introduces listeners to a plethora of lesser-known artists like Baby Rose, whose invitingly soulful voice is the highlight on "Self Love," and TDE's latest signee Reason, who arguably has the best verse on "LamboTruck."
Revenge of the Dreamers III poses as a beautifully arranged album on which none of the features seem forced. It makes DaBaby and J.Cole on a single together seem routine, a collaboration with J.I.D. and T.I. offer an example of poignant storytelling, and a surprise appearance from Kendrick Lamar flow perfectly with the rest of the high-quality bars scattered throughout the album. But more importantly, Revenge of the Dreamers III creates a sonically-pleasing reminder of what happens when J. Cole's artistry knows no creative limits and offers hope for his future music.
This article originally appeared on VICE US.