Comparing hip-hop to sports can be a tricky practice, given the similarities one might draw between the NCAA and record labels as 21st century slave-masters, or the oft-overlooked fact that with sports, competition is a zero-sum game whereas with art, competition is supposed to lead to an increase in overall quality. But, to give this mostly ineffective metaphor one more spin, take the case of Meek Mill. If Meek Mill were a basketball player, it’s the eve of the NBA draft and he’s a surefire lottery pick. The guy is a rangy small forward/shooting guard who can drill the three, handles the ball like a point guard, moves with silky precision, barely breaks a sweat as he launches tomahawk dunks and tosses behind-the-back passes. Shoe companies are hovering. Scouts are salivating. He has undeniable talent and is a likely all-star for seasons to come. But a question lingers in the back of the head of everyone who watches him: is he a multiple-championship winning franchise player, or an incredibly gifted basketball player? Is Meek Mill Kobe Bryant (5-time NBA champion), or Joe Johnson (6-time all-star, zero NBA finals or conference finals appearances)?
Dreamchasers 2, Meek Mill’s latest marquee mixtape (it temporarily crashed Datpiff on the day of its release) shows he is maybe the most versatile rapper working today. There isn’t a beat he can’t charm or a subject he can’t master. He impresses less with surprising vocabulary and imagery than he does with uncannily precise timing, like a quarterback who sees holes down the field before they’ve actually opened up. He reminds one of T.I. in how he knows when to mash five syllables into a single breath as well as when to stretch a word for added emphasis. The first verse of “Ready Or Not” is a clinic in flow, as Meek illustrates how success has become a specter on his personal life: “It’s a dark cloud over me, money took control of me/ I’m barely getting time to see my son and that shit hurting me/ Baby momma trippin out, I tell her to work with me/ I’m on probation still strapped cause niggas want to murder me.” The contrast between the open first and last lines with the cramped second and third lines, the thrusting interior rhymes, the way “murder me” becomes a boast more than a lament, the verse is an absolute marvel and is only a snippet of what Meek is capable of.
Moments like the one mentioned above abound on Dreamchasers 2. “The Ride” paints a hushed, eloquent portrait of ghetto dreams achieved and squandered. “Used to Be” looks back on Meek’s hardscrabble North Philly upbringing with a mixture of pride and anguish. “Lean Wit It” is a radio-ready pump-up anthem. “Face Down” is a hedonistic strip-club romp that would probably make the kids in Odd Future blush. Sandwiched between these standouts however are too many rote Lex Lugerish bangers in which Meek is forced to play the role of tough-as-nails, ex-drug dealer beat crusher, a character basically indistinguishable from 90% of the other rappers out there. When Meek shouts out lines like “Racks all on my wrist, racks all on my neck/ I spend racks all on my bitch, look at these racks all on my check,” he lacks the wild bravado of 2 Chainz or the somnolent swagger of Gucci Man, and it shows. Ultimately it’s this unoriginal bloat that keeps Dreamchasers 2 from becoming a true game changer.
Plenty of greats struggle early in their career, so the fact that Meek Mill has come out so hot should earn him kudos, as well make one optimistic about where he goes from here. You have to wonder, though, that if he doesn’t have a firm grip of who he is now, before entering the gauntlet of major-label hitmaking, how he will fare once the commercial press is on. Rick Ross has done much for Meek’s career I’m sure, for without the MMG boss we might not have ever had the chance to hear him to go crazy on Mike Will beats or rap alongside T.I. and Pusha T. But look at what Rozay has done to Wale: sold him more records, yes, but also turned him from a fierce social critic into another witty Lothario with a hundred metaphors for ass-shaking. Dreamchasers 2 has gritty lyricism and high-flying braggadocio in spades, but will that be the Meek Mill who emerges on his major-label debut, set to drop later this year, or will the album lean more towards sixty minutes of “Tupac Back” retreads? Meek Mill has proven he has talent. The next test for him is choosing what to do with it.