It’s difficult to examine Revenge Of The Dreamers 3 as a cohesive whole. To gain the most from J. Cole and his Dreamville team’s ambitious compilation, one must be able to appreciate the studio as a temple. It has become all too easy for listeners to view the studio as a means to an end. A place in which artists go in and music comes out. Rappers have come to understand this, using it to their advantage by way of “in-studio” musical updates; more often than not, a future song is given life through a thirty-second live recording. Yet the creation process itself remains shrouded in mystique. There’s an air of alchemical experimentation behind any given door. Such was indeed the case during the brief yet intensive Dreamers 3 recording sessions, which found Dreamville staging a full-blown takeover of Atlanta’s storied Tree Sound Studios.

As the recent Revenge documentary revealed, the energy throughout was nothing short of giddy. At any given moment, one might emerge from Tree Sound’s labyrinthian hallways and stumble into a studio to find J.I.D. and Buddy laying down some vocals. Behind another door, WOWGR8 (formerly known as Doctur Dot) and Johnny Venus might be cooking up. All the while, the producers continue to put in work, the unsung heroes of the entire endeavor. The overwhelming nature of the seemingly boundless musical possibilities helped conjure an air of lively competition. Case in point, high-octane posse cuts like “Wells Fargo,” “Costa Rica,” and the JID, Bas, Cole, & Venus led “Down Bad,” tracks that successfully encapsulate the Dreamers 3 sessions in essence; translating the in-studio experience to an at-home listener is no easy feat, but the aforementioned cuts come close.

Guapdad 4000 on “Costa Rica”

The highlights would have never worked had the key players failed to embrace the system. Gone was the traditional approach to crafting an album. This time, instinct and impulse were to be the guide. It’s clear that some artists, J.I.D. especially, pushed himself into overdrive. Seeing him work on the album first-hand revealed his willingness to pull back when the occasion called for it; a selfless savvy that reveals the depth of his artistic vision. When he does appear on the project (a respectable six times), JID is high-flying, springboarding off the foundation laid by last year’s DiCaprio 2. His two standout turns on “Ladies, Ladies, Ladies,” and “1993” find him exploring confident new flows, delivering verses with a clever-paced stagger; there’s even a subtle nod to “Ol Dirty Bastard” on the latter cut, a brilliant pairing of youthful exuberance and Old Head Energy. 

Both Cozz and Lute absolutely body their limited appearances, turning in verses that will likely bring retroactive praise to their previous work. On “Lambo Truck,” Cozz and Reason conjure up a darkly comic, conceptually sharp tale of robbery, in which the mark is none other than J. Cole.  Their shared West Coast heritage shines over one of the album’s most unconventional beats, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see them explore the creative partnership even further. Though Lute is equally sparse, he may very well have delivered the punchline of the year with his “Liam Neeson” line, rounding out the North Carolina anthem “Under The Sun.” On that note, the introductory cut is effective in establishing the album’s sonic tone, while also setting the table for the journey to come. 

It’s no surprise that J. Cole is the first artist we hear, a move emblematic of his role as the grand orchestrator. As expected, Cole is in fine form throughout, lyrically focused and ably flitting between a veteran presence and a marquee player. At 34, it feels as if Cole has only now entered his prime. “Sunset,” which features the unexpected pairing of J. Cole and Young Nudy, finds the former sliding through a welcome sense of aloof swagger; his badass, two-part chorus is the product of dozens of melodies, a well-honed reward. Though “Sacrifices” features excellent performances from Johnny Venus, Smino, and Saba, Cole’s climactic verse seems destined to stand as one of his greatest yet; it’s not easy to inject sincere emotion into technically sound bars, but Cole appears to have reached new levels of artistry. “She gave me the gift of my son, and plus we got one on the way,” he sings, his voice strained with passion. “She gave me a family to love, for that, I can never repay, I’m crying while writing these words, the tears they feel good on my face.” 

The road through Revenge Of The Dreamers 3 is lined with memorable pitstops. MVP status is a fleeting honor, a testament to a wealth of rising talent brilliantly arranged. The uncharacteristically hoarse (and criminally underused, sorry to stir the pot) Wowgr8 sets off Mirrorland track “Swivel” with a muted sense of weariness, while the charismatic Johnny Venus turns in another excellent showing. Masters of cadence at work. Mez, who has been establishing himself as one of the game’s strongest lyricists, seizes the crown in “Costa Rica” with a clutch “Arthur’s fist” reference; his turn on “Sleep Deprived” is equally refined, a piece of reflection that helps solidify one of the album’s main thematic pillars. T.I. allows his saucy nature to seize control, playing the practiced wingman to J.I.D’s nostalgic black-book page-flipper. The competitive nature of the Dreamers 3 sessions encouraged a consistent level of “A-Game,” and for the most part, each artist made the most of their time at Tree Sounds. At least, the ones that made the final cut. 

On that note, one has to imagine the unenviable task left to Ibrahim and Cole. There’s little doubt that whittling down the gargantuan haul of potential tracks required a practiced hand, fuelled by a delicate and potentially volatile balance. Which is to say, the near-robotic ability to make impossible choices while never losing sight of the ultimate artistic goal. Drawing a cohesive journey from such an eclectic and creatively fruitful recording session might have felt a little like drawing blood from a stone. Yet Ib and Cole knocked it out of the part, approaching Dreamers 3 with a noted sense of maturity. For that reason, the album flows with surprising efficacy, retaining a consistent sonic aesthetic from beginning to end. Given everything that went into crafting this third chapter of the Dreamville saga, it’s difficult to deny the magnificent aura surrounding it. The accomplishment of its creation is enough to solidify the album as one of the year’s most important releases thus far. Regardless of how one might feel about the music itself, the recording and release of Dreamers 3 is an integral moment in hip-hop culture. 

For an in-depth look inside the Dreamers 3 studio session, be sure to read our Digital Cover Story with J.I.D & EarthGang