Have you ever walked in the shadow of a giant? Kanye posed that question as the opening line on the final verse of “Big Brother,” reflecting on his early days as an artist on Roc-A-Fella signed to Jay Z, the Goliath to his David. Actually, Jay was the Goliath to an entire label of Davids that walked in that very same shadow. Only a few would grow into their very own giants, only Kanye would walk with him shoulder to shoulder, not even the magnitude of Jay’s celebrity could eclipse 'Ye's burning sun.
When J. Cole signed to Roc Nation, after a very brief promo introduction, instead of being the giant that walked out front, Jay disappeared and left his latest signee completely stranded without his presence to lean upon. It was a sink or swim tactic that Jay never used with his Roc-A-Fella artists, if Cole was truly a born star he would have to prove himself. This is why we don’t really associate J. Cole and Jay Z, we never felt the two coexisted, Jay only opened the door and it was up to Cole to keep it from shutting.
J. Cole is now a giant in his own right, a superstar that is just weeks away from making history with his very own HBO special. It’s a milestone in his career, a moment to be remembered. Not only is he successful as a solo artist but he’s also a rising label head, the face of Dreamville Records. Last year, the label signed a distribution deal with Interscope Records. It showed that Cole didn’t want this to be associated with his label Roc Nation, he wants this to be his venture, proof that he can take an imprint from the bottom to the top. He has a growing roster of artists, so far Bas, Cozz, and Omen have all released projects through the label. The first time I remember hearing Omen was on Cole’s The Warm Up, that was back in 2009. Bas, who is from Queens, and Cozz, who is from Los Angeles, both signed in 2014. Last night, Dreamville released their compilation, Revenge of the Dreamers, that introduced two new signees: Lute, a rapper from North Carolina, and singer/songwriter Ari Lennox from Washington DC. Cole has assembled an interesting group of fairly unknown artists from all across the United States.
What I’ve noticed about J. Cole is that he runs Dreamville more like how Jay ran Roc-A-Fella and not how Jay has run Roc Nation. He is visible, vocal and active in pushing his signees. He appears on their songs, he takes them on tour, it’s the kind of promotion and attention that Cole didn’t receive from his own label head. There was never a Roc Nation compilation album to showcase his talents like Dynasty, the first and only time he hit the road with Jay was during the Blueprint 3 tour, the two only have two songs together, to the outside it was like Jay completely abandoned him.
Cole is making sure the world knows that he is building a talented team, using his celebrity as the foundation for his artists to reach the people. It’s an admirable trait to see an artist so adamant about putting on others, rap is a clustered field where it’s a constant fight for the spotlight, and it’s nice to see someone so willing to share. With that said, I’m starting to wonder when Bas, Cozz, Omen and Lute will experience the Kanye realization? Their boss is a superstar, they are sharing the spotlight with a giant. It’s the gift and curse of being an artist signed to another artist that is world renowned.
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I think of G-Unit. 50 Cent was one of the biggest stars in hip-hop, larger than the Statue of Liberty, but that didn’t guarantee that Lloyd Banks, Tony Yayo and Young Buck would also be huge figures in the industry. They were good rappers in the company of a great rapper, receiving all of the perks that came with being in Fiddy's corner. It’s like a bird nest, the problem is leaving that nest and flying on the wings of your own career isn’t the easiest task.
In Kanye’s case he was completely unlike the other artists that were signed to Roc-A-Fella. He brought a unique style and creative inventiveness that allowed him to truly spread his wings further than say Beans or Bleek. TDE got it right, they didn’t attempt to make Kendrick the biggest artist in the world and then turn him into the main attraction that would bring his fans to their other artist. They pushed everyone at once, they surrounded themselves with interesting and distinctive artists. Even though Kendrick is king, ScHoolboy Q, Ab-Soul and Jay Rock aren’t jesters. Their names were being made at the same time as the biggest artist on the label, it allowed them all a chance to cultivate followings and establish themselves as solo artists. It's tricky, that's why it's so intriguing to watch J. Cole, someone that spent years working toward his current success, now try to open that very door for others.
The Revenge of the Dreamers compilation is very similar to a performance showcase, where you put some promising artists on the bill and have a huge headliner to bring an audience to the building. If J. Cole is there, people will come. His name alone will draw a crowd big enough to attract the fire marshal. The release of this mini-project works in a similar fashion. The people are talking, now it’s about getting the people to talk about who they aren’t familiar with. There’s only three J. Cole features on the entire tape out of the nine songs. I’m assuming it's strategic that each appearance is placed near the top, after the fourth song he completely vanishes. He handles the “Folgers Crystals” introduction all alone, it’s his first real offering since 2014 Forest Hills Drive if you exclude the Black Friday “Alright” release. He assists Bas on “Night Job” and exhales two verses of honesty with Omen on “Caged Bird,” all solid records. After Cole ceases to be the familiar voice, you are able to give the artists your complete attention. Omen proves his prowess as a wordsmith on “48 Laws,” his flow is what grabbed my attention, he’s developing nicely. Bas comes to life on the fiery second verse of “Housewives,” he glides across the trap-driven production. I’m almost certain Cole would sound completely out of place on this soundscape. Trap might be the lane for Bas.
Cozz entered my radar last year when the video of “Dreams” had the blogosphere praising him. This was before he signed to Dreamville, there was an inflection in his voice that made you feel the hunger, like he was going to reach through the speaker and snatch your wallet. I don’t remember his album that well, while typing this I’m eager to revisit it. Especially after hearing “Grow,” that same growling hunger that was heard on “Dreams” reappears, it’s his strongest song on the tape. “Tabs” that features Bas didn’t leave a strong enough impression but I did enjoy his verse on Ari Lennox's “Backseat.” The song is an immediate standout, the Dreamville songstress has a silky voice, the sensual lyrics are sung with a memorizing sweetness. She isn’t without power, there’s a high note that will surely give you chills. Lute also surprised me, I wasn’t ready for this fairly unknown signee to steal the show. He appears on one song, “Still Slummin,’” that showcases another hungry artist but his storytelling approach kept me captivated and the melodic sounded southern and sincere. I immediately wanted to play it back, completely unlike anything I’ve heard from the Dreamville camp thus far.
J. Cole has surrounded himself with artists that are passionate. You can hear it, they want this, a quality they all share. It’s weird, I remember watching J. Cole come up, no pun intended. Part of his success is the story of his struggle, going from North Carolina to the big city with a dream to make it as a rapper. It’s a story that anyone can relate to, being a dreamchaser, the question is, do any of the artists on Dreamville have as compelling of a story? As much as I'm sure they appreciate Cole's helping hand, would they ultimately have been better off paving their own lane, just like Cole had to? They’re good rappers but it takes more than being good to succeed from the shadows.
Jay Z was only able to give us one Kanye. Even though Cam’ron, Dipset, Beans, Freeway and more were all great in their own right, they never transcended the man that put them on or even came close to getting on his level. It’s an uphill battle, stars are born everyday and they outshine the stars already in the sky, and others will dim and fade away. I don’t know if Dreamville is destined for greatness but they are a hungry bunch. May their hunger be enough to move the world.
[By Yoh, aka Yohiavelli, aka @Yoh31]