While GOOD Music is fracturing and TDE’s marketing strategy seems to be out the window, there hasn’t been a top-tier hip-hop label consistently delivering quality and quantity to its fans like J. Cole’s Dreamville lately. Starting up its own festival, growing the profiles of artists like EarthGang, Ari Lennox and JID and releasing another compilation project almost three years after the highly successful Revenge of the Dreamers III back in 2019, the label proves with this one that it can thrive even when J. Cole himself doesn’t make too many appearances. Although the disparity of talent between some members can sometimes be felt – especially when other guest rappers appear on the project – nearly everybody has their moment to shine across these 15 tracks and D-Day is likely to serve as one of the strongest compilation projects in recent memory for quite a while. The legendary DJ Drama serving as the host always adds a couple points as well, as the project gets added to the storied Gangsta Grillz discography.
The ceremonies kick off with a bang as Dreamville’s A-team in JID and J. Cole recruit two of the most chaotic rappers in the game in Kenny Mason and Sheck Wes for a brilliantly structured crossover on “Stick.” Overtop of a blaring horn section that’s always a go-to for a frenetic trap banger, as soon as Kenny Mason begins blowing his vocal cords out on the hook it turns wherever you’re listening to the project into a mosh pit. The true magic of the track, however, is hearing the dexterous flows of JID and Cole trading bars with the energy of the guests, alternating the main thrills of hip-hop as a genre – Sheck Wes in particular drops some atomic bombs before J. Cole unleashes more of a rain of bullets on the back end, his voice never sounding smoother than when he’s calmly wrapping up a track full of gun bars and still sounding just as convincing. “I treat a ride through the hood like a hike through the woods, got a stick that I take with me” is an all-time status mic-drop bar. The tracks “Ghetto Gods Freestyle” and “Lifestyle” see the Dreamville artists EarthGang and Bas with some decent contributions, but both times the guest steals the show – it doesn’t help their cause that they recruited two of the most charismatic rappers around in 2 Chainz and A$AP Ferg. EarthGang has more energy that they could have brought to the glitchy beat of the former, while Bas does come with some impressive speedy flows but some odd moments of silence and monotoned vocals that feel incongruent with Ferg’s manic ad-libs and his spastic triplet flows.
Things immediately pick back up, however, with the incredible “Starting 5,” a collaboration between who most would see as the B-team in Lute, Cozz and Omen. With a boom-bap beat and a trumpet loop from a hazy jazz club, all three artists drop the kind of lengthy verses and lyrical gems you don’t hear from many artists outside the Griselda crew anymore – Cozz especially tackles some social commentary with some outstanding wordplay, while Lute’s layered hook is the catchiest thing on the whole project. Omen appears after a beat switch to some gorgeously textured vocal samples and chilling choral harmonies to send it off nicely. The Ari Lennox solo track “Coming Down” is short on originality, as Lennox takes heavy inspiration from Mary J. Blige’s “I’m Going Down” melodically and Alicia Keys’ “Like You’ll Never See Me Again” instrumentally, but she genuinely sounds so good on the track that she leaves even the typically verbose DJ Drama speechless at the end. Lennox shows up again on “Blackberry Sap,” a more modern, trap-oriented track with some filtered soul samples that she once again displays some effortless high notes and show-stopping vocal talent on. J. Cole appears by himself on the brief “Freedom of Speech” on a similarly Kanye-esque soul beat as he drops some goofy flex bars that he wouldn’t on his own more thematically serious projects. “Hair Salon,” in the middle of all this, is a clunky team-up with a great old-school instrumental – G Perico’s hook is weirdly conversational and arrhythmic, while TDE rapper Reason outshines Cozz on his verse.
While the back half of the project contains mostly solo cuts, the final two collaborations are both some of the best songs you’ll find on the entire project. Before we get there, Lute tackles “Like Wine” solo and offers some laid-back yet confident bars – it feels a little like an Ab-Soul track with the combination of the slow flow and a layered, aggressive hook as he speaks about not needing the spotlight and still succeeding away from it. “Jozi Flows” combines some flute samples with some drill-adjacent bass hits as Bas teams up with EarthGang’s Johnny Venus, who brings the kind of all-out, passionate and gritty half-sung verse that can really elevate one of his typical tracks – he has a unique, punctuating kind of rap voice and some great technical skills to back it up. Not many measure up to JID in that category, however, and he drops the performance of the album on “Barry from Simpson” with some mind-blowing wordplay and internal rhyme schemes. Over a cinematic Godzilla stomp of a beat and some rattling bass that clips out a little and feels like it’s in danger of breaking the speakers, JID eases through but it’s the kind of beat that accommodates a bombastic, smirking performance from 2 Chainz as well.
Things close out with some solo showcases, kicking off with EarthGang’s “Everybody Ain’t S**t,” which comes with a beat quite reminiscent of Run The Jewels’ “out of sight,” which was the beat of the year when it dropped and the knockoff version still has enough energy for both members of the eccentric duo to go off on as they cut just about everything in the world that isn’t them down to size. “Ballin in Newport” sees Omen calm things down for a bit of an origin story as he talks about his family over a jazzy beat, while “Big Trouble Freestyle” is clearly a genuine freestyle from Cozz over the classic “Who Shot Ya” beat. His mind wanders a little and he stumbles across some bizarre lines, but it’s still impressive to hear. J. Cole closes the ceremonies out with a bit of a state of the union address on “Heaven’s EP.”
D-Day is a truly impressively curated project that gives a showcase to all of the label talent no matter what level they’re on, and nearly everybody steps up to the challenge at least once. If the goal was to continue pushing all of the label’s members out to a wider audience, then this mission has been more than accomplished.
Favourite Tracks: Starting 5, Stick, Barry from Simpson, Jozi Flows, Coming Down
Least Favourite Track: Hair Salon