The Devil(s) on Dreamville's Shoulder

What the courting of headliners like Chris Brown and Nicki Minaj says about the contradictions facing Dreamville Fest — and its leader, J. Cole.

The Devil(s) on Dreamville's Shoulder
Illustration by Christian Arnder © 2024

Editor's Note: Earlier today, Dreamville organizers announced that Chris Brown will no longer be performing at the festival, due to "unforeseen circumstances." This story will be updated if any further explanation is provided.

Last November, when a glimmering OVO/Dreamville graphic first graced Twitter and Instagram feeds to announce that J. Cole and Drake would be co-headlining an early 2024 tour called "Big as the What?", there was good reason for a sense of shocked anticipation to reverberate through hip-hop. Arguably not since the days of Watch The Throne had two rappers of such magnitude gone on a shared tour together. If only for its sheer wattage of star power, the news came as surprise. But the pairing itself? That part, at least, felt like the most natural thing in the world.

From the earliest days of their respective careers, J. Cole and Drake have shared remarkably parallel and intertwined journeys — from the commercial (each has had every album of their career go RIAA-certified Platinum), to the geographical (each has built a core part of their identity on being from a city not previously known for rap), to the almost cosmic (each released their first widely recognized mixtape in 2007; the two projects were named The Come Up, and Comeback Season, respectively). The pair emerged (alongside Kendrick) as the preeminent, almost peerless, "Big Three" icons of a "blog era" generation that came of age sometime in the late aughts-to-mid-2010's, and as such, have spent the better part of the past 15 years being compared to and associated with each other (especially by themselves). Recently, however, the duo's long-standing friendship had seemingly evolved beyond occasional surprise concert appearances and song shoutouts, and begun manifesting in more overt ways than ever before: last spring with Drake headlining J. Cole's Dreamville Fest in Raleigh, NC; then in the fall, Cole appearing on the Drake song "First Person Shooter," which would quickly become one of the major rap moments of 2023. (The larger-than-life music video, in which the two stars play ping pong in front of a packed stadium and Drake unveils a Stalin-esque statue of himself lording over the city of Toronto, currently sits at 50 million YouTube views.) In a way, it was only a matter of time. What else but a co-headlining North American tour would come next?

For all its grandiosity, the "Big As The What?" announcement felt not just expected, but almost inevitable, because the careers of its principal actors had made it so: through a decade-plus of partnership, friendly competition and commercial success. For rap fans of a certain age, this wasn't just exciting news — it was a crowning, culminating moment to be universally celebrated. And yet, alongside the splendor was a distinct sense of unease that was hard to put a finger on. As much as it was satisfying to see the once-upon-a-time boyish, up-and-coming co-stars of "In The Morning" commemorating their early days with a major tour thirteen years later, the warm nostalgia served to obscure a nagging, less convenient truth: just how much the two had seemingly diverged in the years between. 

J. Cole's career hasn't been without its share of ignominious, egg-on-face moments (his Twitter feud with rapper Noname in 2020, in which he infamously professed, "I haven't done a lot of reading... but I do a lot of thinking," comes to mind). Still, thanks to a catalog of work that over the years consistently put message and meaning ahead of trends, stereotypes and easy caricature, the Fayetteville, NC native has remained by far — alongside only Lamar — the most famous purveyor of "conscious" rap on the planet.

To put Cole's career in loose terms can sound at times more like the description of a niche, backpack rap revivalist than the bonafide global pop superstar that he is. The widely acknowledged "classic" album in his discography isn’t his flashy commercial debut, or the radio-friendly sophomore effort that followed it, but the no-frills, no-features offering that came after that, about coming back to North Carolina. He purchased his childhood home in Fayetteville and provided it rent-free to single mothers and their children. He made an entire album (2018's K.O.D.) grappling with the specter of addiction, in all its various forms. He made an entire song — maybe against his better judgement — about folding clothes (sing it with me now: "Baby I wanna do the right thing... it's so much better than the wrong thing..."), and another one about how the commercial hits of his first album, presumably by not hewing closely enough to the criteria of what constitutes "real hip-hop," had let down his idol, Nas. He may never have been universally recognized as the second coming of Mos Def, but he was widely seen as thoughtful, earnest and down-to-Earth. 

Strip away the name recognition, and our historical understanding of them as long-time compatriots, and it might be hard to square the close relationship of that rapper to the one we see in Drake today, someone who, as critic David Dennis Jr. puts it, has pivoted sharply to making “incel anthems" that assure men that "it's OK that they’ve been rejected because women aren’t worth much anyway." (Dennis Jr.’s review of last year's For All The Dogs called the album — on which the rapper makes pointed, deliberate attacks on women like Rihanna and Esperanza Spalding for events many years in the past — a version of Drake “at his most regressive and most blatantly misogynistic.”) And it's not just about one album. An Atlantic review of his previous work, 2022's Her Loss, was even more withering in its assessment. Its headline read simply, "For Drake, the Misogyny is the Message." By the time the OVO chief took to Instagram just a few months ago to brazenly call for the release of Tory Lanez, who is currently serving a 10-year prison sentence for shooting fellow rapper Megan Thee Stallion, it no longer felt out of character — just another episode of men's rights-adjacent, edgelord posturing from a mega celebrity reveling in his Too-Big-To-Cancel status. One who, once upon a time, we might've expected to do better.

That it would be this moment, of all moments — this staggering descent into toxicity, petty grievance and cheap crudeness — that Cole would choose for aligning himself closer than ever to "The Boy," would seem, on one hand, to be totally confounding. On the other, it would simply be the latest illustration of the delicate balancing act that has long defined his career: a tightrope walk between conscious and commercial; between seemingly well-intentioned personal beliefs and morals, and the kinds of concessions that come with wanting to be the biggest and greatest of all-time. If the anxieties around Cole's recent enthusiastic embrace of Drake seemed hard to define, it might've been because they arose less from any specific act or misdeed, and more from the general feeling that maybe this time, Cole had gotten the calculus wrong. The sense that, at an imaginary fork in the road between the two poles of hip-hop that he had always straddled — the philosophically-inclined, art-forward sensibilities of Kendrick and the chart-topping, Coca-Cola ubiquity of Drake — Cole had possibly lost his way.

When the lineup for the latest installment of Dreamville Festival (Raleigh, NC; April 6-7) was announced earlier this month — which, it should be noted, J. Cole does not book himself, but for which he nonetheless serves as the public face and foremost spokesman — that same balancing act, and that same feeling of miscalculation, reared its head once again in the form of two names, among the biggest on the bill, that could not be ignored: Chris Brown and Nicki Minaj. 

While many fans rejoiced at the news of the two controversial headliners, the blowback from others was predictably swift. "chris brown and nicki? it’s giving abuserville," wrote one commenter on Instagram. "Wild that Cole would place a known abuser as a headliner smh," wrote another. One fan dispensed with any personal editorializing and cut right to the chase — posting full, verbatim paragraphs of the court proceedings after Brown violently assaulted his then-girlfriend Rihanna in 2009, including passages like: "Robyn F. turned to face Brown and he punched her in the left eye with his right hand. He then drove away in the vehicle and continued to punch her in the face with his right hand while steering the vehicle with his left hand... Brown looked at Robyn F. and stated, 'I'm going to beat the shit out of you when we get home!"

The ensuing deluge of replies to those comments followed what is, by now, a well-worn script for anyone seeking to defend terrible people whose music they still like: the critics were self-righteous zealots who wanted to hold someone's worst mistake over them "for the rest of their lives." The only problem, at least in Brown's case, of course, is his stubborn tendency for making his worst mistakes over and over again — specifically, mistakes that involve violence against women.  

As noted by Rolling Stone's Mankaprr Conteh last year, Brown's abusive behavior — or at least, sustained, plausible accusations of it — has endured long after the brutal 2009 assault on Rihanna. In 2017, Brown's ex-girlfriend Karrueche Tran secured a restraining order that required the singer to stay at least 100 yards away from Tran, her brother, and her mother at all times, based on accounts from Tran that Brown had "threatened to shoot her, kill her, physically attack her, and harass her friends," and also "punched her in her stomach and pushed her down the stairs in the years while he was still on probation for assaulting Rihanna." Brown has also faced two different accusations of rape in recent years, in 2019 and 2020, and another of allowing a sexual assault to take place in his Los Angeles home in 2017. Though most of the recent allegations have been ultimately dropped or ended in settlements, and Brown has continued to be a massively successful artist, a dark cloud stubbornly hovers over his career nonetheless, making the kind of discontent and disappointment voiced at his inclusion on the Dreamville lineup a regular occurrence.

Outside of Brown, there are few modern pop artists who better epitomize the fraught matter of separating art from artist than Nicki Minaj. While her offenses are not nearly as grotesque as those Brown has been accused and/or found guilty of, the Trinidad-born, Queens-raised rapper has done herself no favors in the arena of public perception with her ongoing conflict with Megan Thee Stallion. Given that both belong to a relatively small clan of massive female acts in the traditionally competitive field of rap, to overly police or criticize their beef could certainly run the risk of being its own form of misogyny. But sexism-influenced or not, there are limits to what many fans want to hear — including punchlines about their opponent having been shot ("get up on your good foot," from the diss track "Big Foot"), or jokes that assault allegations from a survivor are simply an attempt at self-promotion (on a Twitter Spaces event on January 31st, Minaj asserted that Megan wanted to use her shooting at the hands of Lanez as a "Rihanna moment"). 

But the aspect of Minaj most deserving of scorn may be in her role as leader and avatar to the Barbz (the self-anointed title for her fans), in which she has arguably been the bellwether of an increasingly fanatical, unhinged "stan" culture within the world of entertainment. Other similarly enthusiastic fanbases have existed and continue to exist — Beliebers, Arianators, Swifties, Little Monsters, etc. — but few have been more emblematic of the ways that mostly-online, parasocial relationships between fan and artist can spiral out into the real world, with dangerous consequences, than the Barbz. On multiple occasions, critical commentary about Minaj by music journalists has been met with ruthless harassment from the Barbz, including death threats (and in the case of Wanna Thompson, the loss of her job). In 2018, fans unleashed a flood of vitriolic comments on music legend Tracy Chapman, simply because the singer had not cleared a sample for Minaj’s album Queen. In 2022, after posting tweets critical of Minaj, YouTuber Kimberly Nicole Foster became the target of increasingly scary threats. As Foster told The Daily Beast: “The messages became more threatening and dark, and then it started to be, ‘We’re gonna find you. I’m gonna kidnap you. I hope you get raped.”

Out of either genuine concern, or the sense that being known for having the most unrepentantly vicious fanbase in popular music was doing her career more harm than good, Minaj took to IG last November with some words of caution. "Dear Barbz, be sure to never threaten anyone on my behalf,” she wrote. “Whether on the internet or in person. Whether in jest or not.” In its specific words, it was undoubtedly a message of restraint. But like Donald Trump's notorious “go home, we love you all" video on January 6th, those words were severely muddied by the previous behaviors of the person speaking them.  

Early this year, mere months after Minaj’s “never threaten anyone” PSA, security had to be increased at the site of Megan Thee Stallion’s mother's grave because the location of the cemetery had been doxxed by Minaj fans, along with threats of vandalizing the grave and digging it up. Anyone searching for explanation as to how Barbz could do such a thing, immediately after being advised otherwise, need only look at the kind of incendiary language Minaj was using about Megan around the same time. In an X post about the beef, she had written: "Any MOTHER taking this woman's side MAY GOD STRIKE YOU DOWN." Sound like anyone familiar?

At any of the numerous big-ticket music festivals that have made clear their prioritization of scale and cultural reach over any sort of guiding principles, none of this would be immediately disqualifying (Rolling Loud recently featured a performance by a self-professed Hitler sympathizer in Kanye West, after all). But at Dreamville Fest — the decade-in-the-making passion project of a relatively small, mostly regional hip-hop label, hosted in the unassuming, mid-sized city of Raleigh, NC — a different standard has come to be expected. True to its early ambitions, Dreamville has consistently succeeded in delivering one of the more genuinely endearing, communal experiences music fans will find in the major festival landscape. Reviewing the inaugural event for REVOLT in 2019, Keith Nelson Jr. wrote: “The Dreamville Festival is the corporeal embodiment of the familial and honest principles that make [Dreamville Records] loved by millions of fans… predicated on transparency, bucking conventions and — above all else — quality over quantity.” Remarkably, even as annual attendance had grown to roughly 100,000 in the years since, that comfortable feeling of a family reunion or cookout mostly remained. By inviting divisive, stadium-sized acts like Brown and Minaj to take over downtown Raleigh on back-to-back nights (following Drake as a headliner in 2023), it was fair to wonder if some of that feeling was slipping away, and whether those original principles still rang true. 

It's all reminiscent of a moment in 2018, when J. Cole turned a critical eye on hip-hop itself, flirting with being a semi-judgmental, industry ombudsman of sorts on the track "1985." Not-so-subtly directed at a rising crop of seemingly aimless rappers like Lil Pump, the song's moral soapboxing may have been grating to some, but it was undoubtedly consistent with the Cole we'd come to know. (Just two years earlier, he'd released a similar song, interpreted to be about Kanye, that becomes more and more prescient by the day.) It was also, notably, a perspective that only someone with the credibility of Cole or Kendrick could bring. But then, as if sensing that he'd come dangerously close to the assured obsolescence of being labeled a finger-wagging Old Head, Cole abandoned the intra-genre commentary. With his recent pivot across 2021's The Off-Season, as well as a prolific run of features — back to his trademark motif of basketball as an analog to rap, and rap as a competitive sport — Cole's skills have been on full display. His thematic imagination, somewhat less so. Where his career once felt animated by a passion for artistic expression, it now seemed to center, more than anything, on being "the GOAT." A few years into its existence, with more and more Top 40 acts topping the lineup, it's started to feel like his namesake festival might be taking the same philosophical turn.

Then, on April 1st (this morning), Dreamville made an announcement that, at least at this time, does not seem to be an April Fool's joke: Chris Brown is no longer on the festival lineup, due to "unforeseen circumstances."

While the end result is a festival more true to its stated purpose and goals — though Brown's replacement, 2000's chart-topper 50 Cent, does not particularly deliver on them either — the change in plans does little to quiet the questions surrounding the Fest, and more importantly, its future. In the absence of further explanation, which could range from the encouraging (Dreamville actively distancing itself from Brown), to the less encouraging (a simple scheduling conflict), the same uncertainties — about balance, about compromises and concessions, about commercial vs. communal — still remain.

As the largest annual event in Raleigh, Dreamville is going nowhere anytime soon. Nor is Cole, whose highly anticipated (final?) album The Fall Off has started to be promoted in recent weeks, in the form of documentary-style short films under the name "Might Delete Later." How the pair — the superstar rapper and his two-day, home-state family reunion of a music festival — proceed from here remains to be seen. But if recent history is any guide, whatever direction it is, they're likely to go there together.