It’s that time of year when I, and likely you as well, look back over the past twelve months and attempt to decide which albums, films, and television series stood out as favorites. One of my favorite albums came out early in January and was the director’s cut version of an album from 2019. I’m not sure if that can count, but it is my list for that matter. Revenge of the Dreamers III has been a favorite of mine for some time now for numerous reasons.

The album is a collaborative project that included 343 artists and producers who created 142 songs in a span of 10 days. The original album released in 2019 with 18 songs on it and the director’s cut in 2020 with a total of 30 songs. There are artists from a host of different labels that came together to create something unique in the hip-hop soundscape. In a culture that is usually extremely competitive and internally combative, this album stands out. But what stands out even more than the album is the man with the vision behind it all.

J. Cole has been someone I’ve been listening to and watching for quite some time now. I’ve previously written on Mockingbird about the grace he extended towards Kevin Hart, but this isn’t the only time he’s done so. In 2018, J. Cole was mocked and disrespected by the younger generation and their artists. There were expletive chants at concerts and even a diss song written about him by Lil Pump because, as stated before, hip-hop culture can often be aggressively competitive and shameless as artists attempt to be the best.

When someone disses you, the usual hip-hop reaction is to come back with a response diss track. One would usually disrespect the other even further and thus step the battle up to a higher degree. J. Cole instead released a song not dissing his detractors but explaining where his heart is for the younger man and the generation that follows him. In a divided culture, which was either on J. Cole or Lil Pump’s side, Cole did the unthinkable. He sat down and had a friendly discussion with the young man. Because of this he was able to learn things about the young man, Lil Pump, that no one had discussed before. Things like family trauma and drug abuse that he was struggling with. J. Cole gave advice from his own experiences.

Where does this grace and mercy come from for J. Cole? It is unknown but it does appear that he is well aware of his own failures and flaws under the weight of the law. In his single he released earlier this year entitled “Lion King on Ice” he declares:

I got blood on my hands, I ain’t gon’ lie
I got mud on my shoes, I ain’t gon’ lie
I got real, real big plans, I ain’t gon’ lie
I got a whole lot to prove

Perhaps Cole’s persuasion to pursue the lost and broken comes from an understanding that he himself is lost and broken. I believe it’s the same reason he is able to be so honest in his music. Earlier this year he was even shamed online for not being as active or knowledgeable on the issues of social justice even though he was publicly at numerous marches. He responded to such accusations with a song called “Snow on tha Bluff” expressing his awareness of his ignorance and his openness to being further informed of what he’s unaware of. In this way his music serves as a confessional. He says it himself, once again from “Lion King on Ice”:

I need y’all to see every part of me
Every scar and every artery

This same J. Cole is the visionary behind Revenge of the Dreamers. It is a project from the label he himself started, Dreamville Records. He extended the invites to all the people in the industry that he wanted involved in the project. It was his voice that helped unite a culture that is sometimes heavily divided. Hip-hop culture has suffered many losses this year, including King Von and Pop Smoke due to violence and division. But further than that, the entire country has suffered from division. This is the reason Revenge of the Dreamers stands out still at the end of 2020.

There is something to the voice of J. Cole and his vulnerable, revealing, and uniting message. There is something to the sound of Revenge of the Dreamers — you hear on multiple tracks the unity and fellowship between differing parties. Not only on separate hooks or verses, but at times their voices are joined in a collective sound. There are even certain tracks where you can tell they are in the recording booth together as a group, laughing and enjoying the broken walls that once were.

It often reminds me of another voice that beckons and calls us together in grace and unity. Another voice that cries out to us broken, lost, ignorant, and divisive sinners. A voice that cries out to us even when we have blood on our hands, mud on our shoes and a whole lot to prove. A heavenly voice that declares those same sinners not lost but found with clean hands and mud-free, white shoes. And if you listen closely, you just might hear that voice through a pair of headphones.