Dreamville’s Gangsta Grillz mixtape celebrates the past but can’t recreate it
The project has highlights, but misses the flawless execution of the revered mixtape series.
On Sunday night in Las Vegas, Tyler, the Creator took home the Best Rap Album Grammy Award for Call Me If You Get Lost, his pointed LP from last year that enlisted the revered mixtape impresario DJ Drama to talk shit throughout its songs and present it as if it were an installment of his Gangsta Grillz series that dominated the first part of this century. It was Tyler’s second win in that category in just three years. His last album, 2019’s IGOR, won, too, despite at many turns skewing closer to electropop than to Dedication 2. While the Grammys have historically struggled to document rap with anything like a comprehensive view, they are correct in identifying the Odd Future frontman as one of the genre’s most ambitious and unpredictable forces.
Tyler’s win came less than 72 hours after one of his contemporaries, J. Cole, had similarly leveraged Drama’s brand with D-Day: A Gangsta Grillz Mixtape. But where Tyler smartly repurposed the Gangsta Grillz template in a way that reframed his style without capitulating to anyone else’s, D-Day is an exercise in imitation. Its sound palette and even its cover strain to recapture a bygone era, one that was marked by a spontaneity and irreverence that this homage undercuts. At its worst, D-Day — like its headliner’s most cloying attempts to channel the work of his heroes — fails disastrously by comparison. At its infrequent best, it underlines Dreamville’s reputation as a home for contemplative Southern rappers who exist just a few degrees outside the genre’s center.
Cole is from the last generation of rappers to come up on the traditional mixtape circuit, where the records that broke them existed outside of the economy and infrastructure built around official releases. The North Carolina native used 2007’s The Come Up to wedge himself into the lineage of rappers from further up the East coast: The St. John’s graduate retained a regional accent but twisted his verses into the widescreen autobiography of aspirant New York rappers, and foregrounded the sheepish moral hangups of early Kanye West. Ironically, this could have been an interesting addition to the Gangsta Grillz catalog. While many of the signature tapes in that series (both of Lil Wayne’s Dedications, Young Jeezy’s Trap or Die, a lot of the most beloved Gucci Mane) helped define the bombastic Southern rap of the era, it also included entries with radically different aesthetic directions, like Little Brother’s Separate But Equal and Pharrell’s famous In My Mind prequel. A slightly bookish wannabe everyman from Fayetteville would have been an intriguing fit.
On D-Day, Cole instead enlists an admittedly compelling array of producers to approximate the rattling drums and horn flourishes of those louder tapes. (It’s always something to see Jake One, AraabMUZIK, and Chuck Inglish in the same liner notes.) While these beats don’t always distinguish themselves from one another — or from the templates they’re tracing — there are a handful of truly exceptional ones: Tane Runo and Natra Average’s lurching “Ghetto Gods Freestyle” and Natra’s solo stutter on “Everybody Ain’t Shit”; DZL’s sneering “Jozi Flows”; and the sly horn loop in the first half of Wyldefyre’s “Starting 5.” These are complemented by a fuzzy mix that recalls the most imprecise file transfers.
As label compilations go, D-Day makes somewhat light use of the Dreamville roster. Cole, Cozz, and EARTHGANG appear three times each, with JID, Lute, Bas, Omen, and Ari Lennox contributing to two songs apiece. This even spread underscores the fact that Cole has gravitated toward artists (Bas and Lute especially, but increasingly Cozz as well) who share his perspective as a writer. The comparison is not 1:1 — Lute has a little more edge to him, Cozz will lapse into unmistakably Angeleno syntax — but all aim for a sort of verbose, populist style that flounders at its most literal and straight-faced but is well-leveraged when the rappers break into jokes or outright cockiness. Bas, like Cole, has an unconventional but effective singing voice; Lute’s coy “Starting 5” hook works far better than it has any right to. In this era and the one D-Day longs for, such a classicist approach sets the MCs at odds with their contemporaries, and especially their regional neighbors.
The sparing use of each artist helps with D-Day’s pacing. To this point, the one truly poor use of a Dreamville artist is actually an error in sequencing: Ari Lennox should have been introduced to the tape with the entrancing “Blackberry Sap,” not “Coming Down,” which comes just three songs prior and whose beat is so incongruous with its vocals that it’s made to sound like a fan-made blend. But there is no question which of Cole’s signees best acquit themselves on the tape. EARTHGANG, the Atlanta duo that has shaken the early, laughably unfavorable OutKast comparisons to become both meaner and funnier than listeners might have expected, anchor D-Day with their three grinning, swaggering entries.
The features on D-Day are well chosen. Kenny Mason and Sheck Wes augment the opening “Stick” as white-hot instruments of war; A$AP Ferg is rhythmically playful enough to breathe life into Bas’ “Lifestyle,” Yung Nudy’s writing idiosyncratic enough to do the same for JID’s “Barry From Simpson.” The latter song also includes an excellent 2 Chainz verse (“My neighborhood, it got gentrified/Yard filled with Black Lives Matter signs/My trigger finger need calamine”) after his middling one that trails EARTHGANG on “Ghetto Gods.” “Hair Salon” is meant to serve as a reminder that Cozz is Dreamville’s West coast standard bearer, but that song is snatched out from under him by G Perico.
D-Day turns nearly embarrassing at its end. The penultimate song hears Cozz rap indistinctly over the “Who Shot Ya?” beat, a staggeringly misguided decision that makes him sound inevitably pedestrian. That’s followed by Cole’s “Pipe Down” freestyle from last fall, where he ruminates about his place in the pantheon of modern rappers and how uncomfortable he feels in public. This is in line with much of his catalog, and certainly has a place in it. But it sells out the confidence that the tape to that point had exhibited (or at least affected), reframing as nervous and pleading a project that at least had the shape of something bolder. Uneven as a revival or blueprint, D-Day is left to feel more like a retreat into the middle.