The Daily Tar Heel

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Wednesday December 8th

Review: Dreamville Festival brings the heat without the Fyre

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J. Cole returned to North Carolina for the inaugural Dreamville Festival on Saturday, April 6, 2019 at Dorothea Dix Park in Raleigh, N.C. 

For a good while there, Dreamville Festival felt like dust in the wind. 

Announced a year ago, J. Cole’s plan, like a great deal of things, was trampled underfoot by Hurricane Florence. Sure, the fest was quickly rescheduled, but would it really pan out? With no precedent, would Cole’s exceptionally ambitious, years-in-the-making passion project actually ever be realized? Or would we see another Fyre Festival, crashing and burning and taking fans’ hopes with it?

After this weekend, the answer is clear as day. Dreamville Festival was a triumph.

From the moment the first performance begins, there’s almost no letup. By design, the fest is an unceasing torrent of spectacle. The performers rotate at a machine-gun pace, and it’s hard to get time to breathe — but hey, who needs to breathe when Saba is pumping life-affirming energy directly into your veins?

The Chicago rapper’s set is an early show-stealer, mingling dark, soul-searching tunes with infectious positivity. The dichotomy is a little jarring, but it soon becomes clear that Saba is here to move the crowd, and in that, his brand of hip-hop-as-soul-food succeeds unconditionally. His latest album, “CARE FOR ME,” an introspective masterpiece written in the wake of his cousin’s death, fills out most of the set

But by the time Saba is done, it’s only 2 p.m. There’s still a full day’s worth of festival left.

EarthGang, performing immediately afterwards, threatens to destroy the park’s already tenuous link to this realm. Their set is pure hype, bottled and delivered straight to your pleasure centers with a complimentary shot of dopamine to boot. By the time “Proud of U,” their recent triumphant Young Thug-featuring single, concludes, it’s clear Cole has something special on his hands.

Triangle native Rapsody turns in another stirring performance, backed by a full, incredibly tight live band and legendary producer (and Raleigh area resident) 9th Wonder. Ari Lennox and Teyana Taylor’s sets keep the soulful vibes going. Taylor’s stage presence is particularly unforgettable. 

The highlights keep coming as the day turns to night: J.I.D.’s inhumanly acrobatic raps, pairing adrenaline with sheer technical skill; 21 Savage’s seething, glorious bangers; SZA’s brilliantly mesmerizing R&B, bathed in sheets of pink light and cheeky spirit. It’s difficult to pick out a single performance without something great to offer the 40,000-strong audience.

Sure, there are some hiccups. There aren’t enough food vendors for everyone. The ground is essentially mud halfway through (pray for the poor souls in their previously-pristine Yeezys). The space could be larger to accommodate the massive crowd. But as the fest progresses, all of these issues fade into the background.

Dreamville’s success takes on a deeper significance when taken in light of the hip-hop community’s latest tragedy. Nipsey Hussle, the Los Angeles rapper recently gunned down in cold blood, is on every musician’s mind, and on many of their stages. The tributes keep coming, from EarthGang’s furious performance of FDT (F*** Donald Trump, Nipsey’s incendiary YG collab from a couple of years ago) to Cole’s own, roping in Meek Mill (!) to help pay his respects. 

When Cole himself takes the stage, he takes a minute to stand silent, gazing out over the massed crowd. The expression on his face could be solemnity, pride, satisfaction — anything. The audience stands with bated breath, awaiting his first words. At that moment, Cole’s Dreamville is as real a place as any, a little town of dreams right there in the middle of Raleigh. Nipsey would be proud.

Then he launches into “MIDDLE CHILD” and brings the house down. Guess dreams really can come true.

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