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Review of Gereg by the Mongolian band The HU
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This entire album (with one exception) is in the key of Eb at A440, which leads me to think Mongolians tune their instruments a half-step lower (the way Western musicians have during certain periods of history) and that they are playing in what they would consider E. The “folk” aesthetic of the band would seem to suggest the use of pentatonic scales, but this is not the case. Only two songs can be said to be pentatonic: “Wolf Totem” and “The Legend of Mother Swan.” “Wolf Totem” isn’t so much pentatonic as it is brutally direct; besides some horsehead fiddle soloing (most notably in the introduction) and a variation of the main riff at the end, the mostly percussive fight song contains only three tones: 1, 3 and 4. Of the nine songs on the album, five are major and four are minor, with some caveats. The Hu does not use the raised seventh in the minor mode and actually lowers the seventh in the major, which means there are no leading tones. The home key is established by droning the tonic, on various instruments and via throat singing, more or less throughout the album. In a couple places a shortened or hexatonic scale seems to be implied. “The Great Chinggis Khaan,” in Eb minor, contains no seconds except as a passing tone during the bridge. Except for the fiddle solos, “The Same” lands on a second in only one part of the verse and utilizes a lowered second in a phrasing variation in the bridge. “Shireg Shireg,” in Eb major, uses a lowered seventh only as a suspension between verses. The use of the lowered seventh in the major mode gives those songs a certain modal indeterminacy—a lowered seventh is a minor third above the dominant. In at least one example, “Yuve Yuve Yu,” there is an instance of a raised sixth played on the guitar in the second half of the bridge. “Shoog Shoog” is the only song on the album in which the bassline is in constant motion and the Eb tonic is not droned in the background. The song utilizes the same Eb natural minor scale as the other minor key songs on the album, but is not tethered to the Eb tonic and seems to want to resolve on the third, i.e. it is actually in the relative major of Eb minor, Gb major.
From a strictly musical point of view, the most interesting thing about Gereg is its careful instrumental layering. All of the songs on the album are built from a small number of simple parts; several of the songs contain no more than a single melody or progression. The album (which is almost fifty minutes in length) holds the listener’s attention by varying the layers of instruments and vocals, and by a very subtle crafting of intros, interludes, bridges, and outros. The role of the individual instruments in the band and of the vocals is less defined, less partitioned, than in conventional rock music. The horsehead fiddle can serve as a droning texture in the background, a base pattern like a rhythm guitar, a complement to the vocal line, or a true “solo” lead used as often in the introduction as the bridge. The Mongolian guitar (I do not know the actual names of any of these instruments so I will use common names), without electronic augmentation and thus one of the least prominent instruments in the mix, is most often used to carry the basic progression, but is sometimes called upon to add a melodic flair at the end of a verse or other transition. Vocal duties are shared throughout the band. It seems most of the time the vocal line is sung by co-leads. But chanting by both the leads and the full band plays a large part in several of the songs, and the throat singing may be the biggest contribution here to the tradition of rock music—at once an expression of inner tranquility and a declaration of war, the best part of every song is the part where the throat singing comes in. “Yuve Yuve Yu” contains a bridge where the melody of the verse is sung in a falsetto with the syllable “doo” and “Song of Women” contains a female co-lead vocal track. Often, the modern drum kit enters only after the mood has been set by traditional Mongolian percussion.
Other instruments that make a subtle impact throughout the album are the mouth harp and the flute. The mouth harp is played at some point on almost every song, most frequently in the intros above the bass. An instrument often used in America for comedy, the Hu have somehow found a way to use it for intimidation. The flute is featured prominently on “Shireg Shireg,” “Legend of Mother Swan” (where it meets the other instruments at the top of the long verse phrase in the instrumental bridge and closes the second and third verse), and introduces “Shoog Shoog” with what sounds like a bird call. It seems that synthesizers or samplers are used very judiciously on the album. “Wolf Totem” begins with the sound of windswept tundra. “The Same” begins with the sound of contemplative darkness. “Song of Women” begins with an aural representation of mystical enchantment. A high-pitched ghost sound, similar to a theremin, appears behind the chorus of “Yuve Yuve Yu” beginning with the first repeat. But it is difficult to determine how some of these sounds are made. The Hu seem to use their instruments to imitate animal noises—most noticeably the neighing horse played on the fiddle in the middle of “Yuve Yuve Yu”; possibly the squawking gull that appears at the beginning and end of “Wolf Totem”—and may be producing these other effects in a similar manner, possibly with the help of electronic processing. There are a couple of places where what sounds like a distorted electric guitar appears, although when mixed with the other instruments the horsehead fiddle resembles a distorted electric guitar in the upper registers. An electric guitar may be mixed behind the horsehead fiddle in some cases. A distorted rhythm guitar and bended high note can be heard in the introduction and under the falsetto bridge of “Yuve Yuve Yu” (right after a handful of piano notes) and is probably incorporated into the plaintive descending motif in “Song of Women.”
A few examples of the detail of the instrumentation. The first track on the album, “The Gereg,” begins with a simple droning of the Eb tonic with Mongolian guitar and mouth harp, accented by a traditional drum emphasizing the first beat of each measure (there is also a two-note figure played on the bass that is mixed very low). The kick drum and hi-hat come in after several measures with the horsehead fiddle layering the guitar and bass. The full drum kit and bass enter after a slow-building snare fill and throat singing on the tonic. Then there is an interlude where the drums fall away, a crescendoing fill is played on what sounds like crash cymbals, and the Mongolian guitar plays the first two bars of the vocal melody twice. Nearly a full minute of introduction, using two notes, before the first verse starts. “Wolf Totem” begins, after some atmospherics, with dueling horsehead fiddle solos over pounding tribal drumming. The first verse is chanted a capella in a call-and-response over the drums—the only time in the song and on the album that a call-and-response is used. The guitar introduces the basic three-note riff, the solo fiddle returns, and then the drum kit enters as the horsehead fiddle drones on the upbeat for several measures. The second verse culminates with throat singing on the tonic. The chant of “hu” is heard only once as the throat singing begins. The third verse contains a few words that are chanted with the lead, to great effect, and leads again into throat singing on the tonic. This time, the “hu” chant appears throughout the section on the upbeat. The bridge begins with a horsehead fiddle solo in two sections—with and without throat singing, mirroring the verses but with the throat singing dropping one step towards the end. Then one line is spoken over a rhythmic break. The fourth verse contains more chanted accents and throat singing on the tonic, with “hu” now falling on the second downbeat. The fifth verse returns to “hu” being chanted on the upbeat. Another, more severe break with fiddle solo announces the beginning of the end of the song. It is layered with a new, more complex chant until the final verse comes in. This time there is no chanting above the throat singing. The “hu” chant begins at the end of the section over a syncopated version of the main riff and is sustained until the end.
But the music may simply be amplifying what is the most fascinating thing about the band: its anti-modern stance in the form of a specific, and quite notorious, ethnic nationalism. Their first video, “Yuve Yuve Yu,” begins with a thirty-five second long introduction in which the band members are depicted coasting through life in the modern world—texting in a restaurant, playing video games, eating junk food while watching TV, sleeping in—when they each open their door or turn to their screen and see an untouched Mongolian landscape. One of the members is seen picking up a Mongolian guitar by a lake in the landscape and the music starts. If the message here isn’t clear enough, the lyrics are sure to drive the point home (quotes are from the booklet; the video translation is in many ways better. Improper use of language is actually quite poetic):
It has been so long eating and drinking being merry / how strange how strangeThe song serves as a gateway to the band’s overall message and ethos: the present is flawed—search the past, search your traditions, for guidance. But the lessons of history vary depending on who you are talking to, so a return to tradition always begs the question: Which tradition? Which past? It’s not always so easy. The first way that Gereg answers this question is with a kind of blanket, mantra-like reverence for Genghis Khan and for the early years of expansion of the Mongol Empire. This sentiment is the subject of the opening track, “The Gereg”—a kind of romance of the Mongolian warrior at the height of the Empire—and more obviously of “The Great Chinggis Khaan,” a paean. “Yuve Yuve Yu” ends with a fairly rigid affirmation of the theme:
Why the valuable ethics of ancestors become worthless?
You’re born in ancestor’s fate, yet sleeping deeply can’t be awakened
With the future of eternal prosperity, the wolf totem Mongols have the blessings of heavenBut this flag-waving leaps over an almost bewildering amount of history. Genghis Khan lived for sixty-four or sixty-five years from 1162 (or 1163) to 1227. He was proclaimed sole ruler of the Mongols, or great khan, by a council of Mongol chiefs called a “kurultai” in 1206, at the age of forty-three. Problems over succession would develop almost immediately with the first transfer of power (although they did not blow open until later): Genghis Khan’s eldest son, Jochi, and second eldest, Chagatai, disputed over Jochi’s perceived weaknesses in military tactics and doubts about his paternity (Genghis Khan’s wife was abducted for several months by a rival tribe after their marriage). Although tradition favored Jochi as the first-born to succeed, Genghis Khan made the two agree to accept his third-born, Ögedei, as successor, with his three other sons receiving khanates within the empire. Ögedei ruled the empire successfully until his death in 1241, but a decade of instability followed. As tradition dictated, Ögedei’s widow Töregene took over until a kurultai could elect a new great khan and she campaigned successfully to have Ögedei’s son Güyük elected by the council. But Jochi’s son Batu refused to come to the kurultai to finalize the succession until Genghis Khan’s youngest brother Temüge threatened to seize the throne. Batu eventually sent a delegation and Güyük was elected by the council in 1246. After taking many steps to consolidate the empire, Güyük raised an army and began marching west in 1248 to confront his cousin Batu but died—possibly of poisoning—before the two could settle their differences. Batu then called his own kurultai on his territory in 1250 and nominated Möngke, the son of Genghis Khan’s fourth son Tolui, to rule over the empire.
Born with undeniable fate to gather nations, the Lord Chinggis declares his name on earth
Oh, black banner be awakened
Oh, the Khanate rise and rise forever
With Möngke’s ascent, power within the Mongol Empire shifted permanently to the descendants of Tolui. Despite an attempt to call a more formal kurultai at Karakorum, the capitol, the Ögedeid and Chagataid factions did not recognize Möngke as the legitimate great khan. One of Ögedei’s grandsons Shiremun attempted to oust Möngke in a coup but was caught. Möngke held trials throughout the empire, purged several hundred Mongolian aristocrats and confiscated Ögedeid and Chagataid family estates. Möngke appointed his brothers Hulagu to rule over Persia and Kublai to rule over North China, and led expansionist efforts in both regions, most notably sacking Baghdad in 1258. He died in 1259 in southern China, with no historical consensus on the cause. When Kublai did not immediately return to Mongolia, being preoccupied with his campaign in southern China, his younger brother Ariq Böke engineered his own election at the kurultai at Karakorum. Upon learning of this news, Kublai held his own kurultai at Kaiping in 1260, in Guangdong, and secured support from the aristocracy of North China and Manchuria, which set off the Toluid Civil War between Kublai and Ariq Böke. Their allies, Hulagu and Berke, fought a separate war simultaneously in the Caucuses. Ariq Böke surrendered to Kublai in 1264, but the western khanates never recognized Kublai as the great khan and the empire would never be centrally unified again. Kublai succeeded in conquering southern China in 1276 when the Song imperial family surrendered to him, founding the Sinicized Yuan Dynasty. Kublai died in 1294 and was succeeded by his grandson Temür. A Chagataid ruler initiated a proposal for peace leading to a treaty in 1304 in which the western khanates recognized Temür as the nominal supreme ruler but operated independently. By mid-century, all four khanates had entered into a political decline that was severely complicated by the Black Death pandemic that spread across the Eurasian continent at the same time (Mongols contributed to the spread of the disease but were not the sole cause). In China, the Mongols fled to their homeland in 1368 after a long period of economic crises, natural disasters, mismanagement, and political infighting that would allow the Ming Dynasty to emerge from the widespread popular rebellions that rose up against the Yuan.
It is possible to say that the Mongol Empire was the world’s first form of globalization. The Mongols created a vast network of trade and commerce that allowed money, goods, technology, art, culture and ideas to flow across the known world with unprecedented freedom. A mail relay system known as the Yam (“örtöö” in Mongolian) conveyed information faster than the Pony Express service that ran for eighteen months in the US between 1860-61. The system was preserved by Tsarist Russia after the fall of the Golden Horde khanate. Kurultais in the Mongolian capital were attended by an array of dignitaries from within and without the empire, including Rome. The capital Karakorum contained what we must assume were state-funded examples of Chinese, Persian, and European architecture by the most respected artisans and craftsmen. This interconnectedness allowed knowledge to be transferred from the two most advanced civilizations of the time: the Islamic Caliphate and Song Dynasty China. Thus, China during the Mongol occupation (Yuan Dynasty) learned from the Islamic world (especially mathematics and astronomy) and Chinese technology was spread to the edges of the Pax Mongolica (the Mongols had a policy of appointing the best Chinese craftsmen to positions outside of China proper). Paper money or fiat currency was introduced to the world in this way (although the early attempts to circulate fiat currency were short-lived). Even the beginning of empiricism and the scientific method began in the Islamic Caliphate and had a parallel development in Song-era China, as the cosmic spiritualism of the previously dominant Buddhist tradition was considered a particular weakness. Jared Diamond’s guns, germs, and steel were bequeathed to Western Europe via the Mongol Empire:
Situated at the end of the Eurasian continent, Europe was at a distance from the great currents of civilization and the great trade routes. But its situation also explains its immunity, at any rate in its western areas, from the most serious invasions; it was making progress at the very time when the Mongol occupation, from Mesopotamia to the Bay of Bengal, was leading to the decline of the Islamic world. It profited from the new waves of trade and borrowings set in motion by the creation of a vast Mongol empire extending from Korea to the Danube. What we have acquired the habit of regarding—according to a history of the world that is in fact no more than a history of the West—as the beginning of modern times was only the repercussion of the upsurge of the urban, mercantile civilizations whose realm extended, before the Mongol invasion, from the Near-East to the Sea of China. The West gathered up part of this legacy and received from it the leaven which was to make possible its own development. The transmission was favoured by the crusades of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The mere enumeration of East Asia’s contributions to medieval Europe at this time—indirect borrowings or inventions suggested by Chinese techniques—is sufficient to indicate their importance: paper, compass, and stern-post rudder at the end of the twelfth century, the application of the water-mill to looms, the counterweight trap, which was to revolutionize warfare before the development of firearms, then the wheelbarrow at the beginning of the thirteenth century, explosives at the end of the same century, the spinning-wheel about 1300, wood-block printing, which was to give rise, as in China, to printing with movable type, and cast iron (end of the fourteenth century). There we have, together with innovations of lesser importance, all the great inventions which were to make possible the advent of modern times in the West. (Gernet, Jacques. A History of Chinese Civilization. Cambridge UP, 1999. 347-8)But the Mongol Empire is remembered negatively by every civilization it invaded. The Mongols laid waste to hundreds of cities and towns. They killed so many people they changed the demographics of the world. The amount of destruction they caused may actually be found in the geological record as forest regrew over previously inhabited land, altering global CO2 levels. Many settlements voluntarily submitted to Mongol rule to escape wholesale slaughter. Victorious Mongolian soldiers systematically raped women and young girls by the thousands as a matter of policy. They used forms of biological warfare and they burned farmland to starve local inhabitants. In at least one instance, the Mongols returned to a city several days after razing it to catch any returnees. The populations of Kievan Rus’ (the precursor to most modern-day Slavic states) and of China may have been halved during the conquest of those areas (there is a debate as to how much of the population loss was due to direct military action and how much to other factors such as disease and census inconsistencies). The Iranian plateau may have lost up to three-quarters of its population from the invasions and from the subsequent famines and disease. The sacking of Baghdad in 1258 is considered one of the most catastrophic events in Islamic history. Along with palaces and mosques that had taken generations to build, the Mongols destroyed libraries containing hundreds of thousands of historical manuscripts, original works, and translations of works from several languages, including one of the greatest library collections ever assembled in the House of Wisdom. When Möngke died in 1259 and Hulagu withdrew from his campaign in Syria to return to the capitol, Christian Crusaders and Muslim Mamluks formed a truce to fight the Mongols, whom they both saw as the greater threat. The irony of The Hu’s music is that they are vying for and have in many ways succeeded in gaining a form of cultural influence or soft power that the empire they sing about never had.
There is a sense, then, that The Hu’s return to tradition is revisionist. In many ways, Genghis Khan himself rose to power by going against tradition. Genghis Khan recruited from a wider range of social classes than other tribal leaders and instituted a form of meritocracy, where the most skilled warriors and officers would be given promotions over elites who had a family claim. He also promised to share the spoils of war with his men and civilians, instead of giving everything to the aristocrats. He brought those he defeated from rival tribes under his protection in exchange for absolute loyalty, even giving orphans to his mother to raise. This was the basis of the rivalry between him and his childhood friend Jemukha, as Jemukha upheld the traditional tribal aristocracies. He also introduced writing to Mongolians, adapting the Uighur alphabet to their language.
However, the biggest problem with the glorification of this specific history is that it never addresses what happened between then and now. The Mongol Empire broke up fairly quickly after Genghis Khan’s death. By the third generation the four khanates began competing with each other and by the fourth generation there was civil war. One of the central questions throughout this incremental fracturing and decline was whether the Mongols should retain their traditional nomadic mode of life or adopt the sedentary practices of the peoples they conquered. Kublai Khan’s lifelong interest in Chinese culture, including his decision to Sinicize the name of his empire and to move the capitol to Beijing (then Khanbaliq) was openly opposed by the other descendants of Genghis Khan and by much of the Mongolian aristocracy. In the end, the different parts of the Mongol Empire were absorbed—politically, culturally, and in large part genetically—by the civilizations they had forcibly subdued.
One of the most obvious ways this album’s version of traditional Mongolian culture gives away its modern perspective is with its presentation of Mongolian religion. There are several references to the Shamanistic Tengrist religion of Genghis Khan and only one reference to any other religion (Buddhism). These references appear in “The Gereg” (Bearer of the will of the eternal Tengri / Fearless warrior and Tengrist), “The Great Chinggis Khaan” (The scourge of the eternal Tengri / Engaged the world with the wisdom of Tengri / The Bearer of the eternal Tengri), and “Shoog Shoog” (The worshippers of the blue Tengri). (The word “Tengri” refers to the sky. Contrary to popular depictions, Tengrism as a shamanistic belief system was mostly monotheistic and that single deity was the sky. References to “blue sky” or “eternal sky” elsewhere in the lyrics may also be considered references to Tengrism.) But Tengrism was never a state-wide part of Mongolian identity the way one might think of Christianity or Islam today. Even during Genghis Khan’s life there were Mongol converts of almost every known religion, including Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam. (As a side note, Jews and Arabs were both referred to as huihui by the Mongols.) Ögedei and Hulagu’s wives were Nestorian Christian. (Hulagu’s wife, Dokuz Khatun, successfully intervened to spare the lives of Christians in Baghdad in 1258.) This is seen as the basis for the Mongol’s religious tolerance—even as they wreaked havoc across the Eurasian continent, they allowed their subjects to retain their native religious practices. Freedom of religion was encoded into Mongolian law and religious leaders were exempted from taxes and public service. Religion was seen more as a personal choice than an inherent part of a national culture, and Tengrism as the Mongols practiced it was compatible side-by-side with other religions. Genghis Khan himself consulted sages and priests of other faiths during his life. And, ultimately, the three western khanates converted to Islam and the Yuan Dynasty to Buddhism.
There is one instance of a non-historical form of revisionism. “The Great Chinggis Khaan” contains what appears to be a reference to congenital dermal melanocytosis, commonly known as Mongol spots or, colloquially, blue butt. The line is: “Brought unity to blue-sealed Mongols.” Congenital dermal melanocytosis is the presence of blue or grey birthmarks in newborn infants, typically in the region of the buttocks, that disappear in childhood. Mongol spots are mistakenly believed to be a genetic trait specific to or most common among Mongols; their prevalence throughout Asia is sometimes erroneously thought to be a legacy of the Mongol Empire. But they occur with the same frequency in populations that successfully defended against Mongol incursion, such as the Japanese, as well as in populations that had no contact with the Mongol Empire at all, such as Oceania, parts of sub-Saharan Africa, and the Americas. About 80% of East Asians are born with the spots, 90% of Polynesians and Micronesians, 80-85% of Native Americans (46% of Latin Americans), and 90-96% of African Americans. They occur in only 5-10% of full-blooded Caucasians.
Something interesting happens, however, with the remaining songs on the album. If you check off the two songs explicitly about the Mongol Empire (“The Gereg” and “The Great Chinggis Khaan”), the one song pointing listeners in its direction (“Yuve Yuve Yu”), the stand-alone fight song (“Wolf Totem”), and the harmless travel guide song (“Shoog Shoog”—this song could be used by the Mongolian state tourism bureau and should come with a full-color brochure), you end up with a balance of four songs that are free of the constraints of either history or religion. Instead, these songs all base themselves in some form of folk wisdom or folk mythology.
In an ironic twist to the rock tradition, “Shireg Shireg” portrays elderly parents offering advice to a (presumably) male child as he prepares to leave home. The song is structurally one of the simplest on the album, consisting of five four-line verse stanzas broken up by an instrumental suspension on a lowered seventh. The tempo is slowed and a quarter-note bass drum pulses throughout the song—the snare never assumes its standard rock placement on the second and fourth beat of the measure. The first and second stanzas remind the listener to “remember the kindness of your old and grey father” and “remember the compassion of your old and caring mother” as the father offers what is perhaps one of the greatest opening lines in the history of rock music: “Water your red horse with the piebald mane without the gag-bit.” The middle two stanzas (second verse) cover slightly less immediate areas of concern, concluding: “Have the intuition to see the evil / Have the strength to endure barriers.” There is a subtlety to the composition that adds depth to the prosaic well-wishing. The musical backdrop to these lyrics captures the strange emotional tension between the anticipation of adventure abroad and the warmth and security of home.
“Song of Women” is the closest thing on this album to a ballad. The first two-thirds of the song is performed over a slow-rocking 3/4 rhythm, with some of the best kit drumming on the album entering on the second stanza. (The pulse rhythm is almost identical to the greatest 3/4 pop song ever made, “Kiss from a Rose” by Seal; “The Great Chinggis Khaan” is also in 3/4.) The meter changes dramatically to 4/4 in the middle of the second half of the song in a shift that feels double-time. The song is structurally very open. After the introduction it begins with three long-phrased stanzas comparing women to various natural phenomena: “The palm tree grows and flowers / As she sings softly my soul retains / Honorable lady / Compassionate and delicate.” A sprawling instrumental break spaces out the second and third stanzas. Mid-way, the song transforms into a long B section in which the remainder of the vocals are chanted and the lyrical voice modulates from homage to petition. In another paternalistic turn, the speaker exhorts the women of Mongolia collectively (not individually, as is typical in the rock tradition) to respect their parents, love their country, and to “have a fighter spirit in your body,” drawing comparisons to medieval weaponry. This song may be the purest example of the Hu’s use of simple repetition as a form of beauty. No other song contains as much chanted text as “Song of Women”; it also begins with a simple chant. This tendency seems to derive from the pre-modern roots of music itself, where simple repetition was the first way humans organized the chaos of the natural world around them. It makes sense that the strongest use of repetition on the album would come in a song addressing and praising the mystery of femininity.
Probably the most ominous song on the album is “The Same.” Another song in five verse stanzas with no proper chorus (only a refrain similar to blues music), “The Same” seems to be a kind of shamanistic ontology of human nature in the natural world. Each stanza compares two types of beings, one high and one low, and finds a commonality in their underlying motivations. The pairs themselves are ordered from higher to lower: king in heaven/king on earth; buddhist recluse/enlightened civilian; henchman on earth/henchman in heaven; people “striving” for material gain/animals in the forest; theif/wolf. What is interesting about these comparisons is that there are no real moral judgements; the full range of human passions—from highest to lowest, from “happiness and affection” to a “desire to kill and devour”—is presented as a fact of nature, the way one might describe the seasons or the ocean tide. Most of the dominant religions today are urban in origin. The system of ethics they abide by developed in densely populated sedentary cultures with a division of labor and a layer of insulation against natural forces. The Hu seems to have located a form of religious truth that precedes these ethics and that clears away the clutter of modernism that is the by-product of them: we sometimes forget that we are, in fact, merely animals. “The Same” also has what may arguably be the most compelling melodic line on the album—each stanza is one long, segmented phrase, with each segment of the phrase building off of the previous segment to a clear and direct resolution.
It would be easy to dismiss the fourth track on the album, “The Legend of Mother Swan,” as filler. The song does not stand out musically and, of course, the lyrics are in a foreign language. Made up of three long verse stanzas plus a chanted portion at the end and (again) no chorus, the lack of musical events in the writing may have been necessary to accommodate what is the only true narrative on the album—“The Legend of Mother Swan” contains a complete folk mythos. Taking place at a “bottomless blue lake at the end of the world” (Lake Baikal, by volume the largest and deepest lake in the world, is just north of Mongolia in Southern Siberia), the Legend tells the story of a female swan who returns to the lake in the spring but cannot find her “lover.” She finds him in the middle of summer, “they loved each other as nothing else matters,” and she becomes pregnant and bears seven cygnets—“How beautiful was life / How tasty was happiness.” Summer ends and it is time for the swans to migrate south—but her cygnets are too young to fly. The lake freezes, the swan tries to save her babies “with half-grown feathers” by taking them “under her wings,” but dies.
The first figure the average Westerner will recognize here is that of the Mother-Hero. The swan, an elegant and beautiful bird, sacrifices her life out of pure maternal love for her children. But this doesn’t explain the emphasis in the legend on her suffering as she freezes to death, the fact that she is ultimately not able to save her babies from also freezing, or the peculiarity of the plot of finding a mate too late in the season to migrate. Given the overall pre-modern, shamanistic nature-worship of the album, one interpretation of the legend may be of the powerlessness of the individual against the natural order. The Romantic hero that emerged from the European Enlightenment wants to believe that his fate lies in his own hands. What began as a rejection of social caste has since expanded to include all manner of human conditions that are only partially defined by society, including the familiar drum of race, gender, and sexuality. But the Romantic spirit grew out of a society that had begun to master nature itself with the Industrial Revolution and primarily oriented itself to that society, in many ways imbuing nature with its own optimism. As the contemporary descendants of the Romantic individual fight for what they perceive as “justice” at every turn, "The Legend of Mother Swan" reminds us that nature itself is inherently unjust. The Mother Swan figure is there to remove the question of intentionality from the equation completely: it does not matter how pure your intentions are, how righteous your cause, or how moral your justification. The Mother Swan is out-of-sync with nature. If you deny nature, you may be successful for a time, but ultimately you will die tragically trying to protect what you love:
As the fire of her eyes quenched her tears stayed pouring
As the last breath left her body her heartache was still there
Died in her tears for half-grown feathers the Mother Swan
Departed in lullubying between sleeping and awake the Mother Swan
Album of the Year #23: Dreamville - Revenge Of The Dreamers III
To preface, the background will be more focused on the label, and less about J. Cole.
Back in 2007, Fayetteville, North Carolina rapper J Cole and his manager Ibrahim Hamad decided to start a record label known as Dreamville Records. The first artist signed to the label was rapper Omen, from Chicago, who had met Cole after sharing music with each other via online forums. Both artists would go on to release mixtapes through the label for the first few years, notable ones including Friday Night Lights, and Afraid of Heights.
In early 2014, Cole announced while performing at Madison Square Garden, that Dreamville now has a distribution deal with Interscope Records, and handed out flyers to attendees announcing that a mixtape called Revenge of the Dreamers has been released. That same day rapper Bas from Queens was signed to Dreamville and featured on the mixtape with Cole and Omen.
In June of 2014, Cozz from Los Angeles was signed. In December of 2015, R&B singer Ari Lennox from D.C. was signed, rapper Lute from Charlotte was signed, and Revenge of the Dreamers II was released, featuring all the current label artists, and a few outside features.
In 2017, Dreamville signed East Atlanta (not Santa) rapper JID, and Atlanta duo EarthGang, comprising of Johnny Venus and Doctur Dot. JID and EarthGang would grow to be Dreamville’s biggest artists, sin J. Cole.
On January 6 of 2019, Dreamville announced Revenge of the Dreamers III, but this wasn’t announcing the release date. This was announcing the beginning of what would be a 10 day recording session in Atlanta, extending invites to over 100 artists and producers to come and work on the album with them.
Singles including Middle Child and Down Bad were released, while Popup shops, brunches, private concerts, and even comics took were used to help promote the album.
On July 2 of 2019, REVENGE, the documentary was released on YouTube, documenting the 10 day process, and featuring snippets from many of the songs featured on the album. 3 days later, Revenge of the Dreamers III was released.
I will first be doing a track by track analysis, with an overall review and summary at the end.
Under The Sun (J. Cole and Lute feat. DaBaby)
The album opens up with a needle drop and a soul sample of “I’ll Be Waiting For You” by The Argo Singers. The sample then tapestops leading into a chopped up instrumental of the song and some booming 808s, with J. Cole mumbling,
“I done seen it all, oh my god”before entering his verse with much more confidence.
“Nothing new under the sun, nobody fucking with son”Thematically, the song is your typical braggadocio rap, but the confidence of Cole and the upcoming artists over the smooth soul sample gives the song much more prominence.
Coles verse leads directly into the hook, which to many listeners shock is a surprise feature from Kendrick Lamar. He says two simple lines that follow the braggadocios theme, and then it’s on to the next verse.
“I woke up for some moneyLute from Dreamville raps the next verse, coming in with even more energy than Cole. He also raps about shooters, girls, and the now iconic line:
Ayy, lil’ bitch, Too many opps in here tell me who you with.”
“Wish a nigga would like Liam Neeson”Kendrick’s two-line hook is displayed again, and rapper DaBaby takes the last verse, and is the first of many non-Dreamville artists to officially feature on the album. Bragging ‘bout bagging girls back in college, guns, and even a reference to his self-defense shooting at a Walmart, he ends his verse shouting out his hometown Charlotte, which may be why Cole chose DaBaby for the opening track, as they share the same home state.
The theme of under the sun can mean everything the rappers have experienced in their lives. The “sun” motif is also played with multiple meanings, as Cole and Lute refer to themselves as sons, while Cole himself has a son, and talks of Sunday dinners.
Fun fact: The last time Kendrick and Cole’s voices were both on a song was on “American Dream” by Jeezy in 2017 but part of separate acts, and before that was “Forbidden Fruit” by Cole in 2013. Under the sun may be a great tease for fans of the duo, but to those thinking this might mean the long awaited collab album is coming, don’t get your hopes up.
The hungry lyrics, laid over the smoothness of the sample elevate the song to a memorable album opener.
Down Bad (Bas, EarthGang, J. Cole, JID feat. Young Nudy)
Down Bad was one of the lead singles of ROTD3, and is a posse cut of Dreamville rappers, and features East-Atlanta trapper Young Nudy. Nudy, JID, and EarthGang are all from Atlanta which may be why Nudy made the final cut of the song.
Nevertheless, Nudy breaks the song, as the opening sample gets filtered and reversed, bringing special attention to his verse. He delivers his signature flow, laid back yet still filled with energy, but his verse is cut off to tap in fellow East Atlanta rapper JID. One of Dreamville’s standout artists known for his fast doublet tip-tap cadence, he doesn’t cease to impress with strong lyrics and clever wordplay.
JID’s verse leads into the hook, mentioning how he had a hard knock life, but had to harden up if he wants to be the best at the rap game. The Dreamville torch then gets passed to Bas, whose verse compares Dreamville to track and field athlete Marion Jones, who cheated in the Olympics to gain an upper hand. He uses this comparison to say how it’s unfair how Dreamville is racing past the competition, while everyone else is slow like a heroin high.
Another hook and it leads to the head of Dreamville, J. Cole. Following the theme of being down bad, he raps about humble beginnings, and how hard work and pressure got him to where he is now, all while having kept a consistent yet complex rhyme scheme in the first half of his verse.
EarthGang member Johnny Venus delivers the final verse. Doctur Dot isn’t on the song, and there will be many times on the album that will credit EarthGang but only include one of the members. Even though he doesn’t talk about being down bad, he makes up for it in his energy and flow. Shout-out Even Stevens.
Overall, the song is a great banger and a good choice as one of the promotional singles. The instrumental is a fusion of rock and trap, with a heavy electric guitar and hard hitting trap drums. It also feels nostalgic giving early 2000’s (Toxic is the first song coming to mind) vibes with the high pitched instrument ringing throughout the track. Every artist gives an amazing performance with high energy.
LamboTruck (Cozz feat. REASON and Childish Major)
The anthem of the underappreciated. This song trades verses between Cozz of camp Dreamville, and REASON of Top Dawg Entertainment. The hook on this song is done by Childish Major, a renowned artist known for producing the tracks U.O.E.N.O (remixed by TDE) and 4 Your Eyez Only by Cole of Dreamville, which is fitting given the topic of discussion. Being the underdogs of their respective labels, the artists have an issue with being overshadowed by the more popular members, who have more favor for releases, features, pay, marketing, etc. etc.
Cozz begins talking about his lack of pay from the label, and how his “dreams” at Dreamville aren’t able to be fleshed out due to lack of funds and attention. Cozz wonders if REASON is having more luck at TDE, since everyone there has gotten special attention to their album releases, from Schoolboy’s recent album to Isaiah Rashad (Ironic). He’s hungry to be making more music, but it’s not in his favor. He’s been so frustrated he’s even considering popping a glock. This could either mean suicide, or more likely used to threaten the label to give him more attention. He brushes it off because that would be stupid to do, but still thinks he might blow a fuse if something doesn’t change soon.
REASON sings a different tune, talking about his lavish life as a rapper, getting money, getting girls and keeping up his image as a hardened West Coast rapper-wait, that’s a lie. He reveals to Cozz that he’s actually been broke for quite some time, the bills keep stacking up, and he can’t handle lying about his situation. Being surrounded by much more rich and famous artists at the Dreamville recording sessions got to him, and seeing J. Cole pull up to the studio in a Lamborghini truck was the straw that broke the camel’s back. REASON wants him and Cozz to rob Cole.
The third verse is a back and forth between REASON and Cozz, with Cozz pleading not to mug Cole, as he’s like a brother to him, and crossing your own brother is taboo. REASON isn’t listening since he isn’t that close to Cole, so it’s not much of a loss if Cole dies in the process. The argument reaches a climax when REASON makes an offer: He goes and robs Cole, while Cozz robs Top Dawg, the head of REASON’s label. Cozz agrees.
The outro by REASON summarizes the song, nice guys finish last, and if you want to get what you deserve, you have to take it for yourself.
This song is one of my personal favorites on the album, since the topic is one rarely heard in rap. Usually artists rep their collective as their family, and upon getting signed, the artist will always be taken care of. In hip hop it’s common to talk about how you used to be broke, but working hard has got you in a much better financial situation. It’s refreshing but also sad hearing how in the case of Cozz and REASON, they’re still broke even after getting signed to some of the most desired and prestigious rap collectives.
The back and forth arguing at the end of the song feels much more intense as their voices are panned to the left and right and the beat breaks, making the listener feel dead center of the altercation.
I’ll be keeping this track short since hammer_it_out is doing an AOTY review for Mirrorland and will most likely have a better analysis for this track (I will link once his review is out)
The track focuses on caution and paranoia (Always keep your head on a swivel) and the gangs talk about the dangers of living in Atlanta. Dot salutes a fallen friend Alan, whose cause of death remains ambiguous but can be inferred through the lyric,
“RIP my nigga Alan, damn, I wish you would’ve stayed at home”.Venus’ verse tells a small story of his youth, not involved much in gang violence which he was thankful for, but still had a rough upbringing as both his parents were overworked for little pay. Things changed for the worse though when Ronald Reagan introduced the War on Drugs, which I’ll try to keep short. Instead of helping communities stay safe from the addictive nature of drugs (which he may or may not have deliberately introduced into lower income communities), the administration used the War as an excuse to target and jail minorities.
Now Venus is ironically surrounded by police brutality and death in what was once a safe neighborhood, and thinks solemnly that being dead would weigh less on him than needing to mourn for everyone else that has lost their lives.
After 3 faster and more aggressive tracks, Swivel serves as a nice break to ground the listener, and help lead into the next track with a similar vibe. The beat teeters between smooth/calm, and eerie/unnerving, helping instill the feelings of paranoia that the song is focused on.
Oh Wow…Swerve (J.Cole feat. Zoink Gang, KEY!, and Maxo Kream)
Zoink Gang is the newly formed collective of JID, Smino, Buddy, and Guapdad4000, having been created during the Dreamville recording sessions. Buddy even announced the group has enough songs for a tape. Although this is the only track on the album officially featuring Zoink Gang, many tracks on the album will feature 2 or more members of the group.
Oh Wow…Swerve is the combination of two tracks.
Oh Wow opens with a dreamy, slow instrumental as Zoink Gang can be heard conversing in the background, and then coming together to chant the hook. Layered vocals of the members sing in the background leading into Coles verse, an introspective verse about how people are truly happy is when they enter the afterlife. Some purposefully corny bars about Radioactive (he’s becoming self aware), and the verse ends with an alarm clock, telling the listener to stay woke even though it may feel better to be asleep. Zoink gang chants the hook again, and Oh Wow ends.
Swerve begins with an incredibly catchy hook from Atlanta’s KEY! talking about his car, the theme of Swerve. A slow but bouncy trap beat from Bizniss Boy is the instrumental for the song.
A car skrts in the background and the song shifts focus to H-town Maxo Kream, a standout verse showcasing his clever comparisons of pop culture to gang life. Some of my favorite lines of the album are from his verse. The following verse is by JID, but is cut off short, the listener only hearing about 4 or so lines. This could be payback for cutting off Nudy’s verse early back in Down Bad.
Oh Wow…Swerve is a nice double track, and although there is no real connection between the two parts of the song, it was probably combined as a way to transition back to banger territory from the solemnness of Oh Wow and Swivel. Swerve also doesn’t feature any Dreamville members bar the 4 bars from JID, so this could’ve been an excuse to get the track onto the album since Oh Wow does contain Dreamville members.
Don’t Hit Me Right Now (Bas, Cozz, Ari Lennox, feat. Yung Baby Tate, Guapdad4000 and Buddy)
Don’t Hit Me Right Now is a track packed full of different artists. The artists are tired of girls hitting up their phone, and are busy with other things, which is the theme of the song. The beat is bouncy and is fleshed out by Ari Lenox’s singing as she provides background vocals for the track.
Oakland’s Guapdad4000 sings an incredibly catchy hook (it won’t be his last on the tape) and the remaining artists deliver quick 8 bars. Bas takes the first verse, and his last line actually begins the first bar of Atlanta’s Yung Baby Tate’s verse. With less rapping and more singing, her verse is also outstandingly catchy.
The hook is displayed again and Compton’s Buddy begins the following verse. Buddy arguably benefitted the most from the recording sessions in this album, being lucky enough to voice in 6 separate tracks on the album (a whopping 9 if we include the director’s cut), the most from any non-dreamville artist. He even beats some of Dreamville’s own artists in volume. Cozz finishes the last verse and the hook plays again, ending the song.
Overall, Don’t Hit Me Right Now is a nice party track, and is a fun song to listen to.
Well Fargo Interlude (JID, EarthGang featuring Guapdad4000 and Buddy)
However, the debatably most fun track on the album is an interlude. It begins with a skit from the credited artists imitating posh British accents, while preparing to rob a bank with bazookas, flamethrowers, machine guns, and muffins. The hook is the 4 artists chanting about how they’re about to rob the Wells Fargo. The beat is loud and rambunctious, and features some unique instruments imitating party horns to make the track extra playful. While the vocals and beat are in sync, the composition of either the hook or the beat (can’t tell which) is done so in a way to make it song sound off kilter, almost like the artists are coming in early/late and need to catch up to the beat. This is done on purpose as Johnny Venus is heard saying at the end:
“It’s just how you count it, it just depends on how you count it”The verses are super quick, switching from one artist to the next before you even have time to realize they started rapping. The quickest song on the album, Wells Fargo makes a case of being one of the most HYPE songs of 2019. The energy in it is insane. Examples include the chanting of the chorus, the group finishing every bar for Johhny Venus, and Buddy cutting into the hook screaming:
“YOU GETTING THIS? YOU RECORDING THIS? ARE YOU GETTING THIS!? AAAAAAAAA”If you haven’t watched the REVENGE documentary on youtube, I’d recommend scrubbing through until you find the clip of them recording this song. Seeing all these different people from across the country, having probably not even met each other prior to the recording sessions, have so much fun making a track captures the essence of what ROTD3 is about, getting people together to make great music.
Sleep Deprived (Lute, Omen, feat. Mez and DaVionne)
This track is another focused on overcoming hardships to reach success, so much so that the artists are sleep deprived from overworking. They also reminisce about past dreams and conquered goals.
Raleigh’s Mez and DaVionne (hometown not specified) are featured on this track. The beat is filled with natural drums that surround the room, with a crash symbol that slides between the left and right connecting the kick and snare. A funky bass riff plays in the background, and dreamy piano keys capture the reminiscing topics of discussion.
Lute begins talking about how thankful he is to be in his position to a girl he just met. To put it simply, even though saying Rap saved him is cliché, it’s true. He can live comfortably now, and watches as those who didn’t ride for him now want to be on his side. Lute manages to always bring hunger and energy in his verses, and the same goes for this one.
Mez picks up the next verse, talking about his dreams, and mentions that he used to want to sign to Cole in the early days of Dreamville. He reflects on the hard times and trauma he had to go through, and now it keeps him up at night, yet tells someone (his fans or his girl) not to stay up late worrying about him.
DaVionne delivers an amazing Chorus, catchy but meaningful, and Omen, one of the OG members of Dreamville, gives his first verse of the record. He talks about a failed relationship and trying to rid himself of her, yet still finds himself staying up late thinking about her.
Every artist on this track shined, and played the different aspects of why someone could be sleep deprived. Lute is sleep deprived from stress. Mez doesn’t want his fans or his girl losing sleep over him. DaVionne is carving her own path in life while haters are losing sleep from trying to figure her out, and Omen is up late thinking about a lost love.
Despite the topic of discussion, the vibe of the song is a mix between bounce and relaxation, and serves as another great bridge on the album as it delves into deeper, more meaningful cuts.
Fun Fact: Mez actually did have a back and forth with Cole on MySpace back when J. Cole went by “The Therapist”. This was probably around the same time Omen was chatting with Cole and would eventually go on to create Dreamville.
Self Love (Ari Lennox, Bas, feat. Baby Rose)
This song is for the self-conscious. The soulful Ari Lennox and Atlanta’s Baby Rose sing about struggling to fit in, and how it’s unhealthy to invest too much of yourself into someone else, when instead you should be loving yourself.
The chorus is short but impactful, “Self-love is the best love”. Ari Lennox croons her verse and her turn at the chorus, filling the air with vibrancy and emotion. Baby Rose sings the following verse and chorus with much more soul. You can feel the pain in her voice, and her performance is remarkable.
Both singers mention a failed relationship amidst their self-conscious thoughts, and Bas comes in to play the other side of relationship, saying how he led his girl astray and feels shame for making her feel the way she feels. He realizes this relationship isn’t healthy and a break is needed, because “Self-love is the best love”.
Another personal favorite of mine, it’s good to know you’re not alone when you feel down and out of place. Baby Rose killed her feature, and has an outstanding voice.
Ladies, Ladies, Ladies (JID feat. T.I.)
Based on “Girls, Girls, Girls” by Jay-Z, JID talks about his experience in past relationships with a little help from T.I. The beat uses a chopped up/reversed vocal sample and is slow and dreamy.
JID reminisces, from girls who tried to rob him, girls far more wealthy than him, girls’ brothers trying to shoot him, andeven girls who tried to say the N-word around him even though they aren’t black.
Some clever word play is used in his verse, such as:
“She be panty-less (penniless), so no panty lines…she fucked me, tryna pluck a couple bucks like a banjo…”JID is almost always rapping with a faster flow, so it was a nice change of pace to see him rap so smoothly over a slower track.
ATL’s T.I. is the guest of the track, talking about his past relationship with a girl named Loraine, and how karma from “loving” a woman too hard is bound to come back to you, so you can get that same lovin’.
I feel like it has to be mentioned given the recent T.I. controversy, but it is pretty hypocritical about rapping about past relationships, and how fucking a girl really well will come back to you as good karma, while at the same time giving your daughter regular hymen checks to make sure she isn’t having sex. Nevertheless, T.I’s verse fit the song well, and did well as a guest feature.
Costa Rica (Bas, JID feat. Mez, Buddy, Jace, Reese LAFLARE, Ski Mask the Slump God, Smokepurpp, and Guapdad4000)
Another posse cut on the album but one highlighting the features much more than the Dreamville artists. CuBeatz makes the melody on this beat, with their signature of complex, catchy instruments. Pyrex Whippa known for his bouncy drums doesn’t disappoint, adding the percussion on this cut.
This posse cut is aimed for flexing, each artist giving their own unique sauce for their verses. Reese from Atlanta begins with a standard trap verse, talking of fendi pants, slatt, and plenty of girls. The verse gets passed to Bas, who uses a clever simile telling his jeweler to make a piece out of his heart since it’s so icy cold.
Guapdad4000 shows his amazing hook skills once over, yelling how he’s got plenty of fans and plenty of bands in the popular tourist country of Costa Rica.
Jace’s verse is filled with pop culture references, from Norman Bates to Rihanna, and Raleigh NC’s Mez delivers a fast rhyme scheme in the latter half of his verse. Guapdad sings the hook again and the drums cut out for South Florida’s Smokepurpp, who’s funny lines paired with a laid-back tone make them even more humorous, examples include:
“Forty-five on me, shit hot like a pocket (doo-doo)”JID is back to his fast cadence, bouncing off the walls from topic to topic, and ending his verse somewhat humorous saying that at the airport before flying to Costa Rica, a girl mistook him for Swae Lee.
“Got your baby mama doing drugs in the moshpit”
After the third hook, Buddy is back on the album track, also with a humorous verse, and even comparing himself to Ernest Hemingway because he’s been writing so much, which is why he’s on so many songs.
Ski Mask, also from South Florida, holds the final verse. A long awaited one at that after a snippet surfaced of him in the studio during the Dreamville recordings, with almost a dozen artists all chanting his bars and going absolutely crazy. He also uses his signature style of fast flows and humorous references. I might be biased being from South FL but it’s nice seeing so many rappers fuck with him, and even having him and Purpp be invited amongst the other artists during the ‘Ville sessions.
1993 (J.Cole, JID, Cozz, EARTHGANG feat. Buddy and Smino)
“Every album gotta have a weed song.” `-Danny Brown.
Much like many rap albums, a dedicated song to the wonderful flower that is bud is needed, but this one has more of a twist. The artists are having a smoke sesh trying to relax after a day of recording during the Dreamville sessions. If you’ve ever seshed with friends, you know that there’s always going to be the one friend who’s high enough to think he can freestyle some bars and impress the group. Usually while attempting to freestyle, the blunt stays burning in their hand, and it’ll be ages before it finally gets passed.
Take that scenario, but everyone in the group is a famous rapper. Buddy is not having it, and tries to stop everyone attempting to spit so that they can just chill and enjoy the sesh. Every rapper talks about their experiences with the drug, only to be abruptly cut off by Buddy who just wants the damn blunt to be passed. The highlight of the song is the skit at the end, just hearing all the rappers just laughing while Buddy is trying to quiet the room down, and points out:
“This nigga J. Cole, he done grew some dreads, he think he smoke now”It’s definitely one of the funniest lines on the album and it’s not even part of the song, it’s a skit.
I really enjoyed this song because like Wells Fargo, it’s not meant to be taken too seriously, but as a song/skit combo it does well enough to be funny without crossing the line of corny.
Rembrandt…Run It Back (J. Cole, JID feat. Vince Staples)
Rembrandt…Run It Back is another 2 part song, and Rembrandt opens up with a vocal pitched JID giving warning to anyone who might try to mess with him or Dreamville.
JID and Cole both have verses on Rembrandt, talking about how their group is better than others in the game. A boastful song, both verses also feature 2 word couplets, using a limited vocabulary to help paint the picture (like artist Rembrandt van Rijn) showing their superiority.
The hook is displayed again with gunshots ending Rembrandt, as Run It Back starts to play. Long Beach CA’s own Vince Staple’s voice can be heard trying to get someone’s attention. He’s confused and wonders if this is the Dreamville recording session he’s been hearing about.
He then begins his albeit short verse with energy, boasting of his guns, clothing, cars, and fearlessness in the face of violence. He ends the verse warning someone not to get killed by the police, before his verse is cut off by fully automatic gun.
Both 2-part songs on this album seem to have the second song only populated by non-Dreamville artists. As I mentioned earlier this is probably why they’re attached to the first song which does feature Dreamville, as a way to still have it listed on the album.
Sunset (J. Cole feat. Young Nudy)
Pyrex provides another bouncy trap beat, this time with help from ChaseTheMoney. Originally called God Flinch, this track was rumored to include a Drake feature due to a photo online of Drakes name attached to a first draft of credits for the song, and a photo of him riding in J. Cole’s RR around L.A. J Cole mentions riding the Rolls Royce in L.A, and includes the bar, “2-6 god” which could also be interpreted as “To 6-god”, but to many fans dismay, the track does not include Drake.
J. Cole’s hook plays a cliché on the “Roses are red…” poem, saying roses are red while his diamonds are blue. His pockets are green from being filled with money all the time. He mentions how he wants to get a house in LA, and later explains why in his verse due to how he almost got killed in his hometown being mis-recognized in a drive-by.
Young Nudy is back again (with a full verse this time) and uses his laid back flow to contrast his trap/drill filled lyrics. Thematically, the song isn’t very significant, however it’s still catchy to listen to if you need a banger.
Got Me (Ari Lennox, Omen feat. Ty Dolla $ign and Dreezy)
Ari Lennox and L.A’s Ty $ tag team in this R&B deep cut, singing of their loyalty to their lover, as long as their lover is just as loyal. Much like every album needing a weed song, if there’s an R&B track and Ty $ is featured it’s bound to be a vibe. Ari sings the following verse after Ty, talking about how just much more special she is as a lover than the other fish in the sea. Omen and Chicago’s Dreezy finish the cut with rap verses, but still fit the theme of the song as they discuss how grateful they are for their partner, and their partner for them.
Like I said, the song is a vibe, plain and simple. The beat is very trapsoul, and allows the singers to shine. The rappers’ verses give support in order to make a catchy, quality, R&B track on this album. After what was about 5 trap-inspired songs previously, this is a nice change of pace yet again, showcasing the album’s diversity.
Middle Child (J. Cole)
A solo track by J. Cole, Middle Child was released under his name in January of 2019. Originally believed to be a single for what would be his next album, it was actually the first of many singles to be released promoting Revenge of the Dreamers III. A full brass section opens the song, serving as the basis of the song’s instrumental. Cole opens with a refrain, talking about his enemies and how he’s coming to get them.
His first verse discusses how he isn’t into hard drugs, but may babysit some drinks and smoke ‘sum. He talks of wanting to support his friends and peers who aren’t in as lucky a position as Cole. A common theme of his is again expressed of him giving thanks to the rap idols of the past for giving him a source of inspiration.
His refrain repeats and transitions into the hook, a chant of boasting, and telling other rappers that no amount of money or street cred will make you real.
The second verse fits more into the theme of Middle Child. Cole feels like the middle child, bridging the gap of the older, more lyrical generation of rappers, and the new wave of trap-heavy beats carrying the songs of rappers with more minimalistic lyrics. He mentions talking with 21 Savage and Kodak Black, using them as a means to spark a discussion about how too many minorities are jailed. The lack of proper guidance due to generational trauma is leading to mass incarceration and infighting, which Cole hopes to fix. The chorus plays again, a quick outro and the song ends.
Overall the song accomplishes its purpose. Just like merging the two wings of rap, it’s conscious and delivers its message prominently, while still being modern/poppy enough to be played at functions. Even though Cole says he doesn’t drink much, he talks about needing a very strong drink, “something he can feel” in the chorus. This could either mean hard liquor or lean. It’s argued whether he’s talking in first person perspective, or in the perspective of a typical new age rapper, but it’s still cleverly used as a way to keep the hook catchy. It’s modern enough to have playability at parties, (similar to Swimming Pools, albeit not as powerful imo) which is very smart from a marketing standpoint, making it a hit.
Fun Fact: J. Cole is not actually a middle child.
PTSD (Omen feat. Mereba, Deante’ Hitchcock, and St. Beauty)
The penultimate track, PTSD is one of the most slept on songs of the album due to the lack of star-studded guests.
What sound to be chopped vocals and a melancholic piano open up the song, with natural/rhythmic drums keeping the time. The theme of the song is just like the title-PTSD. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder usually develops in people who have witnessed a traumatic event, with its effects being triggered reactions within those affected regarding the event. The artists on this track talk about traumatic events in their lives and how it has affected them.
Mereba from Alabama begins by speaking to an unnamed figure. This figure is no longer with her, with clues hinting to death by being shot. Now Mereba reflects and understands that this is the reason why she has trouble sleeping at night, and needs to sleep with a gun in order to feel safe.
Deante’ has the next verse, very deeply and emotionally talking about his regrets through life. He’s carrying the thoughts of those close to him on his shoulders, not because they died, but because they failed to live out their dreams and are doing so vicariously in him. His fortune and fame is causing him guilt and shame.
Omen has the closing verse of the song, and his trauma revolves around his sister. On a Tuesday he saw her walking with her kids, which normally is no issue, only it was at midnight. It finally dawned on Omen that rumors he’s heard of his sister being homeless are true, and that she was living on the streets. He was so in shock that he left her on the street before they could talk. The trauma is that he hadn’t seen her for years prior to that encounter, and hasn’t seen her since. Omen prays that he can get closure and the chance to talk to her before one of them dies.
St. Beauty sings a refrain, and Buddy closes out the song with a more uplifting outro, chanting with many of those in the studio with him about how this (being the song or the album) is for the homies…and the hoes.
Sacrifices (J. Cole, EARTHGANG feat. Smino and Saba)
An album later and here we are. Is it really a closing track if it doesn’t have Smino and Saba? No need to worry about that here, as Chi-towns Saba and St. Louis’ Smino both have verses on this song.
A guitar can be heard picking in the background, and a fast drum break leads into the beat of the song. Johnny Venus is the only EARTHGANG member on the song, but his two verses make up for Dot’s absence. His signature voice croons as he talks about a near death experience. The hook is short but meaningful.
“I make sacrifices, bloody sacrifices. Cutthroat... rabbit’s toe... I suppose... maybe that’s what life is”His second verse gets more enthusiastic. Olu’s voice pans between the left and right ear as he yells two words at a time, only to slow back down again for his hook. St. Louis’ own Smino raps the next verse, a smooth feature showcasing his unique style of wordplay and flow. Smino always shines on closing tracks, and this is another example for that. The same goes for Saba, who goes next. His rhyme scheme is consistent, and near the end of his verse it really shows off.
J. Cole has the last verse, and it’s honestly one of the best verses I’ve heard from him, period. He wrote more meaningful lyrics about how he loves his wife in a single verse than Chance did on an entire album. He also mentions cleverly how he went from Huey Freeman to Ed Wuncler from the Boondocks to describe how he went from being as conscious as he was pre-fame, to now a rich, disconnected man. It’s one of his most memorable verses, and the singing at the end really sells it. The way the beat rides at the end serves as a great album closer.
Revenge of the Dreamers III accomplished what a lot of other collaborative/label albums fail to achieve, being a critically good album. It has structure, flow, and consistency throughout. Much like critically good solo albums, there are high points and low points, a diverse mix of bangers and deep cuts, and track placement is perfect. The album is divided into small sections that help separate the tracks by feel, but short enough so the vibe doesn’t get stale.
One of the main reasons this album is as good as it is, is because of the features. ROTD3 broke new ground, and inviting so many artists to help work on the album sparked waves of creativity that we will continue to see. Many songs from the Dreamville sessions may not see the light of day, but non-Dreamville artists will eventually have a track or two that was recorded at the time. The relationships formed such as ZoinkGang, Cozz and REASON, etc may also not have happened, and we may get more collaborative music in the future from them.
The last time an event on this scale occurred was probably during the recording of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. While Kanye helped craft his album with the help of his legendary connections like Jay-Z, Rza, etc. Cole went a different route, and focused on the new school. He even minimized having more noticeable features, having only 2: Kendrick as an uncredited feature and a single verse from T.I.
Doing so gave the new school a chance to show their hunger, and maybe even served as a competition; since so many artists were at the studio, only the best of the best could get featured on the album. Standout performances from people like REASON, Buddy, and Guapdad4000 may introduce them to new audiences, who may never have given them a chance beforehand.
Even though this is a feature stacked album, it’s a Dreamville tape at heart. Dreamville didn’t disappoint. Every member came through, and reminded listeners why it was called Revenge of the Dreamers in the first place. Dreamville has done a lot better than other labels at showcasing their in-house talent, and gives each artist multiple spots on the album to exemplify their prowess (I’m looking at you, TDE and Cactus Jack). It was also a nice change of pace for J. Cole, his verses were much less serious than his solo work, and you can tell he really had fun when making the album.
I really hope this album inspires more rap collectives/labels to make their own collab tapes. I also hope this makes it more acceptable for said collab tapes to accept help from outside artists. Revenge of the Dreamers 3 is a standout album in 2019, and definitely earned its Grammy nomination.
“Potato over my gun”Lute – Under the Sun
“Pistol grips get to squeezing, wish a nigga would like Liam Neeson”
“Let a nigga cover Fader ‘fore I have to fade a nigga at the Fader Fort”JID – Down Bad
“Maxo talk a lot of shit but is he really ‘bout that life?Maxo Kream – Oh Wow…Swerve
Is a pig’s pussy pork and can a caterpillar fly?
Go Go Gadget, toting ratchets, beam attachment on the side”
“Had so many adventure times, we used to run from the jakesMez – Sleep Deprived
To make it for Southside, we do whatever it takes
It was apartheid when my barber parted my fade
‘Cause now I’m pulled left and right by Keshia and Adrinae”
“I got the Mike Jack’ nose, just before the vitiligo,Jace, Mez, Buddy, and Ski Mask the Slump God – Costa Rica
Norman Bates with the eights, I’ma go psycho,
Laundromat with a temper, this a vicious cycle,
Feel like Rihanna, bitches go wherever I go”
“Niggas got me tight like Arthur’s fist and shit”
“I started sucking on her titty, put my thumb in her ass
She had a little one, it really wasn’t nothing to grab, I did it anyway.”
“I’m feelin’ like Goku, bitch, I need your energy, uh, um, okay, huh. Going on a date with an AK”
“I push pack like USPS, you is a bitch”Smino – 1993
“See a nigga in all red from the North with the pole, it ain’t Santa ClausSmino – Sacrifices
Brought my gifts to Atlanta, I’m Atlanta Claus
I can smell you pussy with the panties off”
“It’s astigmatism, you got poor sight, let the bitches forget it, I do it Alzheim”
“I’m a real soulful nigga, collard greens inside your speakers”
• Would you like to see another collaborative album made similar to the Dreamville recording sessions? Will there be more events like this in the future?
• How does Revenge of the Dreamers III rank compared to other label albums? (ex. Beast Coast, JackBoys, TDE/Black Panther soundtrack)
• Who was your favorite Dreamville artist on the album? Your favorite non-Ville Artist?
• Has this album introduced you to any new artists? Will you be exploring more of the artists featured on this album?