There was a time, not long ago, when a DJ Drama-helmed Gangsta Grillz mixtape was maybe the most official declaration of a hip-hop artist’s arrival. Though Drama would exit the mixtape game to develop stars like Lil Uzi Vert and Jack Harlow-the Gangsta Grillz brand fully intact-contemporary rap has yet to find a replacement for “Mr. Thanksgiving” popping his shit at the beginning (and end) of the whole of a mixtape’s tracks. Someone with the star power of Dreamville label head J. Cole needn’t have called on Drama-in this day and age or any other-to affirm his standing in hip-hop, but their collaborative D-Day: A Gangsta Grillz Mixtape is a victory for fans of either era.
To be clear, Cole’s Dreamville team knows how to put a mixtape together. Look no further than 2019’s Revenge of the Dreamers III, a project whose recording process became the talk of the industry before it’d even come out. But with D-Day, the crew pays tribute to an institution while realizing the mission of every hip-hop mixtape ever released: reaffirming that the MCs therein are skilled enough to hold your attention even when outside of “album mode.”
D-Day is an undiluted showcase for Dreamville’s very dynamic roster, providing plenty of space for under-heralded MCs like Bas, Lute, Cozz, Omen, and EARTHGANG to bar up, making time for Ari Lennox to cosplay as young Mary J. Blige (“Coming Down”), and then allowing the big boss man J. Cole to go straight savage on the gleefully nihilistic “Freedom of Speech.”
The guest verses here are just as rewarding as they are surprising, and include sets from A$AP Ferg, 2 Chainz, Young Nudy, and long under-regarded LA gangsta rap traditionalist G Perico. If this differs from previous Gangsta Grillz tapes, it’s because the agenda here is not to anoint the collective as a force to be reckoned with. The reality is that they’ve been a force, and also that they’ve already managed to leap the contemporary version of that marker, in having their very own Dreamville music festival.