A lineup like the one set for the 2023 Dreamville Festival seemed almost too good to be true. Usher, Drake, and J. Cole headlining the same festival? Usher, Drake, and J. Cole in the same place at all? One could only find such a fantasy on Twitter, or on someone’s algorithm-generated festival lineup. Yet, on Saturday April 1, Dreamville Fest lived up to the label’s aesthetic of highly imaginative artists who execute on the goals they envision. Things got underway with a slew of surprises and unpredictability becoming the theme of the weekend.
Attendees weathered literal and figurative storms, as inclement weather caused delays in Raleigh, North Carolina. Three hours after the festival’s intended start time, the fun began. The gloomy skies set the stage for R&B acts like SiR, Jessie Reyez and Ari Lennox to deliver their soulful, emotive cuts. It wasn’t a fully downtempo day though, with Earthgang sprinting across the Rise stage during their set, trading between nimble raps and melodic croons. An easy highlight of Day 1 came from Sean Paul, who transported fans back to the days of Sean John sweatsuits and T-Mobile Sidekicks on the Shine stage. Though his inclusion was a bit out of place in the company of Lil Durk, City Girls, Key Glock, and Lute’s performances, it was a welcome deviation from the blazing Hip-Hop and R&B.
And then there was Usher. It would be easy to focus on him pump-faking a surprise appearance by Beyoncé for April Fool’s Day, but only a fool would be unwilling to forgive a man with classic records like “Caught Up,” “Lovers And Friends,” “The Matrimony,” “My Boo,” and “Confessions. The poise, swagger, and vocal range displayed during his masterful 21-song set was yet another reminder that he is one of the greatest performers to ever live.
On Day 2, most of the festival goers were focused on getting a good spot for Drake and J. Cole’s co-headlining set. Many arrived in packs around 3 p.m., causing staff members to forego the special VIP expedited entrances to try and get everyone inside in a timely manner. People flooded the gates around 3 p.m., causing such a backup in security check-ins that the festival staff made the VIP expedited entrances available to all. Dreamville Fest’s staff deserves a lot of respect for the extra emphasis on the health of those present. After spotting an attendee napping on the floor, an employee offered to call a medic, suspecting there was something wrong. Though the sleeping guest was okay, it was refreshing to see the welfare of the festival-goers be a major priority.
Though the additional entrances did not speed the process up enough to prevent fans from being stuck outside during Waka Flocka’s ground-shaking performance, they made the most of it by turning up near the security detectors to “Round Of Applause,” “No Hands,” “Hard In Da Paint,” and “Grove St. Party.” Upon finally entering for Day 2, there was also a surprising item on one of the food menus: “Playboy Nugs.” The $100 dish consisted of chicken nuggets doused in VSOP cognac glaze and topped with caviar, gold flakes, and black truffles. While some foods held lofty prices, the overall service was exceptional.
In yet another unexpected outcome, GloRilla did not show up for her 5 p.m. set. An industry guest told VIBE that she was present backstage, but did not perform for an undisclosed reason. JID followed Earthgang’s hometeam lead from Day 1 and rapped with fervor, delivering the GRAMMY-nominated record “Down Bad” from Revenge Of The Dreamers III, “Dance Now,” “Surround Sound” and slowing things down with “Workin Out.”
Summer Walker turned the Shine stage into a white fortress, matching the aesthetic in a white dress. The Still Over It artist maneuvered through some technical issues, impressing vocally with “Body,” “Playing Games,” “Come Thru,” and “Unloyal.” Despite keeping things mellow, the Atlanta-bred singer had a lively stage presence, trading jokes with the crowd and leading them in an acapella chant while her earpiece was fixed. The next surprise came when she brought out fellow LVRN artist 6LACK, who performed “Pretty Little Fears” and his seminal record “PRBLMS” to enthusiastic roars from the crowd.
Burna Boy was the penultimate performer before the night’s highly-anticipated headliners. As evidenced by how many people made their way over to the Rise stage—effectively risking a spot for Drake and Cole—his set was worth it. The African Giant sounded identical to his records on wax, ripping through “For My Hand,” “Location,” “On The Low,” and many more of his songs that have soundtracked the last few summers.
Then it was time for the grand finale. J. Cole shocked fans by opening his set with the popular 2010 loosie “Who Dat.” The greatness in the Dreamville head honcho’s performance acumen was on full display: his impeccable breath control, crowd engagement, and ability to improvise on a whim. Midway through spitting along to “Villematic,” he transitioned into his scene-stealing verse from Benny The Butcher’s “Johnny P’s Caddy.” The Grammy-winner also brought out his Dreamville roster mates Lute, Earthgang, Omen, Bas and JID to perform “Under The Sun,” “Down Bad,” and “Stick.” Customary to all of his shows, he closed with a moving performance of “Love Yourz,” which caused the raucous crowd of thousands to almost fall silent and sing along to the pensive cut.
As if that wasn’t enough greatness to bask in, The 6 God then graced the stage. He was thrilled to be back in Raleigh, stating he hadn’t been there in some time, but had to do it for his “brother” J. Cole. Similar to his two-night stop at The Apollo Theater at the end of January, the Toronto superstar took listeners on a journey back into his career with “Over,” “Headlines,” “HYFR,” “Started From The Bottom,” and “God’s Plan.” Perhaps in an effort to avoid the awkwardness of his Camp Flog Gnaw set in 2019 when fans booed him off the stage, he repeatedly asked the crowd if they wanted to hear more before alluding to some friends he brought along. More surprises!
Enter GloRilla, who was M.I.A earlier that day. The Memphis rapper appeared with backup dancers and performed “F.N.F,” cashing in on what fans wanted to hear during her originally scheduled set. Next, Lil Uzi Vert, who had just performed at Wrestlemania Goes Hollywood the evening before. The enigmatic artist bursted onto the stage with “XO Tour Llif3” and then, of course, got the crowd’s hips moving with “Just Wanna Rock.” A few songs later, Drake upped the energy with “The Motto” and another unexpected voice could be heard: Lil Wayne’s. Weezy F Baby and his mentee embraced on stage before the former got into “Uproar” and “A Milli.”
Prior to this set, VIBE spoke with a few fans who predicted 21 Savage would be in attendance— and they were correct. The Her Loss duo traded bars over “Rich Flex” and “Knife Talk” before J. Cole returned to the stage. The “Jodeci Freestyle” rappers shared multiple embraces, expressing their love and appreciation for one another as the evening came to its official close.
Though Dreamville Festival 2023 may not have gone exactly as the attendees expected, it offered more than anyone could have asked for. Surprises can be hit or miss, but the continual positivity from the weather delays onward solidified that this was one of the best-run music festivals in this current music landscape.