Who Is Dreamville's Most Underrated Artist?

No matter if you find his own output to be exhilarating and essential or monotonously dull, it’s almost impossible to deny that J. Cole is fashioning his own golden age. Whether he’s igniting imaginations with features that came way out of left-field or acting as the mediator between two warring generations, anyone that’s viewing his moves with an objective mindset would have to give it up to him for how he’s embedded his agenda into the epicentre of hip-hop as we know it in 2019.

J. Cole - Dominique Oliveto/Getty Images

Constructed in an intensively creative environment in Atlanta, the impending arrival of Revenge Of The Dreamers III feels like J. Cole’s public acknowledgement of the Midas touch that he boasts at this point in time. It’s a victory lap that was conceived as a way of fostering mutually-beneficial relationships and making “more friends out of peers,” forged by not only Cole and his core Dreamville contingent but by a who’s who of hip-hop’s leading movers and shakers.

In spite of the record acting as the third edition of the ROTD series, this project feels like the "first," of blockbuster proportions, and that ultimately boils down to the improved stature of the label. A few years ago, public perception of Dreamville is that it was ultimately a one-horse town that was nothing more than Cole’s pet project. Based on presumption way more than fact, many people thought that Cole was simply another rapper that wanted to add CEO to the list of his accolades. To facilitate this, his detractors thought that the Carolina rapper had built himself a stable of also-rans that he’d picked from the hip-hop jumble sale that could maybe, just maybe, be nurtured into something more viable under his guidance. Fast-forward to 2019 and the prevailing outlook has shifted so much that you could feasibly make a case for them as one of the labels reigning supreme currently.

After a few months of relative radio silence, Dreamville gave us the first taste of what awaits us with the simultaneous release of “Down Bad” and “Got Me.” These two tracks predictably sent the internet into convulsions and made the project’s forthcoming release even more of a hot property. Over discordant squeals and booming percussion that make it feel like a brash reconfiguration of Public Enemy’s “Rebel Without A Pause,” Cole spits a bar on “Down Bad” that succinctly captures his team’s voyage to the cultural summit:

“Crew sick, we the Golden State of rhyming, on God.”

J.I.D. at the HNHH office - Image by HNHH

In many ways a call-back to his claim that “Dreamville stacked like the warriors” from 2018’s “Album Of The Year (Freestyle)” Cole’s reiteration of this statement leaves the door open for discussion as to who is their most underrated asset. Just like Golden State’s Klay Thompson or-- depending who you ask-- Draymond Green, some of Dreamville’s members may be receiving their due praise by association with the label but are yet to be lauded or duly rewarded for their skills in their own right. In order to break it down, it’s time to look at who is regularly overlooked.

If we hearken back to a year ago, this title could’ve easily been assigned to Spillage Village’s resident lyrical hitman JID. Prior to the release of Dicaprio 2, the East Atlanta kid was a routine oversight in lists that fixated on who was next up or conversations about the finest penmanship that you can find in hip-hop today. After its release, the man that J. Cole signed on the grounds of having “GOAT potential” is making serious waves.

An artist that Cole described as “The Future” upon her album’s release, Dreamville’s resident chanteuse Ari Lennox is also getting the recognition that she deserves at long last. Although it placed her seemingly unending promise on full display, the release of Shea Butter Baby made it clear that Ari operates in her own distinct lane that is far more self-sustainable than many of the roster and so she doesn’t quite meet the criteria for underrated.

Primed to arrive with the long-awaited Mirrorland this year, the buzz that has arisen from EarthGang’s every move has been fascinating to watch. After years of continual growth and two well-received records from 2013 and 2015, the fact that they’re perpetually saddled with Outkast comparisons means that the unflinching spotlight of expectation is on them more so than any notion of being overlooked. Bearing all the quirks and intricacies of a group that’ll inspire cultlike devotion from audiences, Mirrorland seems predisposed to bring them into the warm glow of the mainstream.

As far as Cozz, Omen and Lute go, this cache of poetically-gifted and uncompromisingly insightful rappers appear willing to inhabit that realm of renowned underground kings rather than taking a stab at the charts. Seemingly content to set the pace on this circuit, this leaves one Dreamville export that has every trait and characteristic of an artist that could command a worldwide following.

Fresh from delivering his most deftly-constructed and sonically rich gift to the world yet on 2018’s Milky Way, it’s difficult to dispel the persistent feeling that somehow, Bas is still yet to access the rarefied air that he and his output deserve.

Bas of the Dreamville camp - Johnny Nunez/WireImage/Getty Images

Prone to creating output that bears little to no resemblance to his contemporaries, the Sudanese-born Abbas Hamad possesses the sort of artistic clarity of vision and individuality that many of rap’s greatest possessed. Aside from just using a different palette, Bas’ easel is pointed at an entirely different landscape than any other artist around him and incorporates sounds from across continental lines. Beginning with Last Winter and expanded on with 2016’s Too High To Riot, his trio of Dreamville releases-- and new single "Fried Rice"-- have boasted a vibrancy and distinct flavour that makes him a true standout even in a space that’s littered with incredible artists.

Throughout the course of his career, Bas has had to overcome the odds and make his worth clear to even his Dreamville labelmates. In an interview with Sway from 2015, J. Cole chronicled how the MC came to get his deal and emphasized that it was no easy road for him to travel:

"Bas, man. It’s crazy about Bas because… Bas really had to earn it. Bas had the advantage of seeing from day one in Queens way before the record deal… Just to be that good so fast, he was still raw, like… raw talent but I saw it. But like I said… the fact that I knew him, it wasn’t like I was going to be like [scoffs] come on Bas. He worked for years. That’s what happened with Bas, he had to prove it to me."

But near-enough in the same breath, Cole articulated exactly what it is that makes Bas such a fascinating proposition:

"He from Paris. He from Queens, but he didn’t move to Queens until like… third grade or something like that? So he’s got like this… European ear? That I can’t really describe. It’s way different from my ear and it’s way different to anything that I could offer to the world. It’s… vibey."

Opposed to letting his friend get a deal through nepotism, Cole’s reluctance to sign Bas was likely instrumental in why he’s so willing to push his art to any length that he sees fit today. Bas and J. Cole may be longtime friends but there’s no artist-sidekick dynamic here, a la Memphis Bleek, Shyne or Lil Cease. Founded on an undying love for hip-hop and the creative process, Dreamville is a meritocracy that rewards those who are performing at the tip-top of their game. If the music industry operated on the same ethos, then it’s likely that the man behind "Fiends" would already have reached as many hearts and minds across the world as he has the potential to.

Marooned just on the perimeter of the widespread acclaim that he deserves, it may only take a few star-making outings in the presence of some of ROTD III’s most commercially high-powered guests in order for Bas to fulfil his destiny. Driven by his refusal to run aground and express himself with honesty and in the most innovative ways possible, hopefully ROTD-- and his rumoured new album with longtime collaborators The Hics-- will allow the prophecy that he verbalized back on Too High To Riot’sPenthouse” to eventually come to fruition:

"Lately I got this feeling,

My n****s is meant to get it

It's written up in the stars

Made it from slimmer odds when only God was with us

Fuck it n***a we did it, been picking the game apart

My response for critics is spitting it from the heart"

Who do you think is Dreamville's most underrated? Sound off in the comments.

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