By Andy Goh
April 9, 2019
Every so often the cosmic conditions align to create a culture-shifting moment. Even if the effect of the moment isn’t fully felt until years later, those who experienced it will be able to nod knowingly to each other while the rest will claim they were there.
Time will tell if J. Cole’s Dreamville Fest at Dix Park in Raleigh will ascend to those heights, but it certainly felt like it had that potential.
Originally scheduled for September 2018, Dreamville Fest had to be postponed at the last minute due to Hurricane Florence. In hindsight, the 11th-hour change may have been a blessing in disguise for both Dreamville and the city of Raleigh.
Since September, Dreamville has stayed steady in the minds of hip-hop fans across the world. In January, the label invited several of the industry’s hottest artists for a 10-day recording session in Atlanta for the Revenge of the Dreamers III compilation album, effectively creating a social media frenzy. J. Cole released the admonitory single “Middle Child” later that month and stole the spotlight playing the half-time show at the NBA All-Star Game in February. Dreamville’s inertia increased considerably in the past seven months, contributing to a sold-out crowd of 40,000.
For the city of Raleigh, Dreamville Fest was seen as a barometer of Dorothea Dix Park’s ability to host an event of this size. City officials, as well as attendees, neighbors, and fans of Dreamville everywhere should be able to pridefully say the event was a success. Providing a wonderful full-circle moment, proceeds from the event benefited victims of Hurricane Florence, Dorothea Dix Park Conservancy and the Dreamville Foundation.
Between two main stages (“Rise” and “Shine”), Dix Park hosted food trucks, vendors, multiple art installations, a hammock bay, a children’s area and more. Free water stations (with individually manned spouts) dotted the perimeter, making hydration a simple task. Despite the muddy conditions due to the previous day’s rain, many fans still could be found lounging on blankets or on dry spots in the grass. The weather was ideal, not too hot or cold, and occasional clouds provided relief from the sun.
If the crowd at Dreamville Fest was representative of its fanbase, then Cole’s crew has one of the most diverse in hip-hop. People of all colors, fashions and orientations could be seen spread heterogeneously throughout the crowd, making for friendly and colorful interactions. One word kept getting repeated when we talked to those in attendance, and we can’t think of a better word to describe it: a vibe.
Kicking off that vibe was Charlotte rapper Lute, who made fans take notice of his classic cuts from West 1996 Pt. 2, and debuted a new song, “Gold Mouth.” The early afternoon saw high-energy sets from King Mez, Saba, and Dreamville duo Earth Gang.
Standout performances from the late afternoon included Ari Lennox, who certainly raised a few eyebrows by asking the crowd “Has anyone here ever gotten f*cked in the backseat of a car?” before launching into the appropriately titled song “Backseat.” Officially there was no award for “Best Abs,” but if there was, Teyana Taylor won it when she stepped on stage. She then backed it up with high-powered choreography while belting out her hits. Snow Hill, NC’s own and Jamla/Roc Nation artist, Rapsody, provided a sharp, focused and soulful set with her label partner 9th Wonder providing a bed of grooves behind her alongside the talented Storm Troopers band.
With the passing of West Coast rapper Nipsey Hussle fresh on the minds of everyone in attendance, the festival had the feel of an unofficial celebration of his life. Fans everywhere were wearing Nipsey gear, and a custom mural paying tribute drew long lines of selfie seekers. J. Cole’s tribute was the most touching (more on that in a moment), but particularly poignant tributes included Teyana Taylor dedicating a heartfelt rendition of “Gonna Love Me” to Nipsey and Lauren London, and Rapsody taking a knee mid-set.
Once the sun began to set, the energy got ramped up even higher as uber-talented Dreamville rapper J.I.D ripped through the his set, causing multiple mosh pits to break out during a raucous performance of “Never.” J.I.D’s ability to push as many syllables out in as short a time as possible was on full display during his performance, and left more than a few faces melted.
The day wasn’t without its flaws, however. A shortage of food trucks, or perhaps poor planning, led to lines well over 100-feet long at many of the eateries creating human barriers that required deft footwork to avoid. Sound issues at the “Rise” stage also took the wind out of 6LACK’s set, as his mic was out for the entire first song, visibly upsetting the R&B/hip-hop singer-rapper. These were minor complaints in a day full of energy and good vibes.
As day turned to night, the headliners came out to play. The much anticipated return of 21 Savage from his arrest at the hands of ICE was a bit underwhelming as 21 seemed to lack a certain energy in his set. Between him and his DJ, it wasn’t the fullest translation of his studio sound to a live environment, but the crowd didn’t seem to mind and sang along to every lyric.
Top-Dawg Grammy-nominated singer SZA put plenty of bounce into her set, playfully interacting with the crowd at every turn (and even catching a wig of all things thrown from a fan). In a surprise twist, SZA covered Sixpence None the Richer’s “Kiss Me,” followed by a booty-shaking rendition of Megan Thee Stallion’s “Big Ole Freak.”
Finally, the time had come for the man himself to take the stage. The air was thick with anticipation as J. Cole strolled onto the Dreamville Fest stage. The event itself was several years in the making and a culmination of a career very much in its prime. Cole soaked up every bit of that moment, peering out deep into the sea of fans that had come to his home state to rock with at his own festival. Dressed in a custom red Dreamville jersey, Puma sweatpants and shoes, and dreadlocks flowing, Cole let the crowd’s chants wash over him. After a quick tap of the mic, he launched into his 2019 defining hit “Middle Child,” causing the 40,000 in Dix Park to rap along in unison.
After a group of recent crowd pleasers including “ATM,” “Fire Squad” and “Kevin’s Heart,” Cole rewarded long-time listeners by chronologically taking the crowd through classics from each of his early mixtapes and albums: “Grown Simba” from The Warm Up, “Back to the Topic” from Friday Night Lights, “Nobody’s Perfect” and “Work Out” from The Sideline Story.
One of the year’s biggest songs came to life when Cole brought 21 Savage back to the stage for a cathartic version of “A Lot.” 21 saved a lot of energy for that song, putting his all into the lyrics before proudly proclaiming Cole’s verse on the song to be the “verse of the year.”
That wasn’t the only guest to join Cole. In a surprise appearance, Meek Mill took the stage as the two traded bars on “Uptown Vibes,” before Meek rocked the stage with his two signature songs, “Going Bad” and “Dreams and Nightmares.”
In between those two guests, however, J Cole took a barstool out to the middle of the stage so he could take the time to pay proper respects to his friend (and former XXL covermate) Nipsey Hussle. As the chords to “Love Yourz” started to play, Cole hadn’t even lifted his microphone before the crowd sang the song’s intro: “Ain’t no such thing as a life that’s better than yours.” Cell phone lights filled the crowd as a video of Nipsey played on the screen behind Cole. In a day full of touching tributes, this one brought everyone in attendance together.
Cole closed out the show with another group of hits including “KOD,” “Wet Dreamz” and “No Role Modelz.” As he finished with a meditative version of 2014 Forest Hill Drive’s closer “Note to Self,” he implored the crowd to put an arm around everyone next to them and sway.
As the festival finally came to a close, the collection and connection of people from different ethnicities, backgrounds and life experiences defined what Dreamville Fest was all about: bringing people together through a shared love and experience of music. At the end of the day, that’s what any music festival strives for.
Whether Dreamville Fest becomes the cultural touchstone that claims North Carolina’s spot on the map, or at least becomes an annual event remains to be seen. Meanwhile, those who were there on Saturday in Dix Park know they experienced something special and can nod knowingly for a lifetime.