Let’s take a moment to frame Meek Mill in a slightly larger context than just his new album, Dreams and Nightmares.
Meek Mill is a rapper from Philadelphia who specializes in “going in” in the same way Ray Allen specializes in hitting threes. Since he first appeared on the radar with “Tupac Back,” it’s been hard to think of him doing much else than the kind of super-hyped shouting that is now his calling card. It’s no accident that Meek Mill has become, with a couple of years of singles and high-profile features under his belt, fairly predictable. The “untouchable” Maybach Music Group is a juggernaut now, but over the years it has achieved its dominance through more than a little shrewd legerdemain, and part of that master plan has been treating Meek Mill like a utility player, rather than a star in his own right. Since Dreams and Nightmares is Meek Mill’s major label debut -- his first opportunity to show who and what he is -- it is worth it to first set out the story of Maybach Music as context for both this artist and his album.
Here’s a brief history: Rick Ross miraculously evaded PR disaster after PR disaster in the first few years of MMG’s existence; somehow, the revelations that he was formerly a prison guard, the leak of his all-too-real sex tape, and a beef with a fading but still-feisty 50 Cent didn’t hamper Ross, it actually seemed to free him from the bothersome constraints of reality. In subsequent years Rozay has enjoyed an unprecedented and almost surrealistic (if, perhaps, self-parodying) reign over rap music. He has achieved and maintained this dominance partially because he quickly signed a handful of past-their-prime almost-stars like Wale and Omarion for brand recognition’s sake, and partially because he consistently enlists similarly-ridiculous or unconventional rappers like Lil’ Wayne and French Montana for features. But it’s hard to imagine this cobbled and very weird firmament of names and characters holding together without someone like Meek Mill.
This is the case because Meek Mill is alone among MMG’s A-list as a serious talent drafted (for the most part) from the street, rather than picked off some other label’s waiver wire (with all due respect to Grand Hustle, who hardly used Meek when he was on their roster). He lends the Maybach Music Group – and for that matter, every song he’s on – some undeniable intensity that most others only claim to have. And intensity is the name of Meek Mill’s game. He is intense in a way that makes it difficult to take your eyes off of him. He is intense enough that Rick Ross can get away with saying something silly like “No more peanut butter sandwiches, now we looking at loaves” and know Meek will cover him. In this way, Meek Mill’s ostensible one-dimensionality has become something of an asset for his label and collaborators.
So we know Meek Mill can change the complexion of a song on just 16 bars – see: “A1 Everything” – but what about when he’s on his own? So far, he’s been less like A1 and more like Tabasco – a little goes a long way. But a full album from Meek Mill is a different story. His two MMG-sanctioned mixtapes, Dreamchasers and Dreamchasers 2, both had their share of exciting moments, but over the course of a whole album it became apparent that Meek Mill has some trouble getting out of fourth gear, which can become taxing at best and boring at worst. Tabasco is nice, but if that’s all you had for dinner you might fucking die – and not in a cool, “I kill the pussy, I murder shit, homicide on shorty”-type way.
All this is to say that Dreams and Nightmares is Meek Mill’s first real opportunity to show that he’s more than his go-hard minuteman role has suggested. And in this situation he has set the bar modestly high – Dreams and Nightmares is a loose concept album about how he has simultaneously seen his greatest dreams and worst nightmares realized in his path to fame. It faces its first and most important litmus test on its opening song, “Dreams and Nightmares,” which takes a whack at the album’s conceit. The song starts out on shaky legs, full of awkward lines like “shorty tried to bless me like I said ‘achoo'” (which he then clarifies, “like a nigga sneezed”). It seems well-intentioned but ultimately destined for failure, until the “dream” portion gives way to the “nightmare” and Meek’s tone changes drastically. He’s suddenly the artist you recognize: vicious, hoarse, falling in and out of rhythmic riffs, achieving more with affect than verbiage. It’s a telling and, unfortunately for Meek Mill, unflattering juxtaposition that paints the picture of the whole album. The Meek you’ve seen is, for the most part, the Meek you’ll get.
Some of the better songs on Dreams and Nightmares – “In God We Trust” and “Believe It” being prominent examples – are the ones that let Meek hit the track hard and tear it apart. The former has an insane, scintillating, maximalist arpeggiator beat that is one blown speaker away from being a Death Grips track and that maybe five rappers in the world could do justice, Meek Mill prominently among them. And while his witticisms leave something to be desired (“His body went into shock, no Pikachu”), Meek Mill can push the needle far beyond what has been done before with brute force alone. A line like “I got a bullet with your name on it and a full clip I autographed/Kids crying at the viewing, I guess it was sort of sad” is Big L-level brutality, but with his voice straining to abandon it’s hard to tell if Meek was recording in a padded booth or a padded cell. He often falls on his face when he tries for the kind of hashtag gags that are all the rage among his contemporaries, but “In God We Trust” makes none of those missteps. The latter track is more standard fare; Rick Ross spouts some patently ridiculous references to Miley Cyrus and Justin Bieber, and Meek Mill dutifully plays cleanup. But the best song on the album is the slightly-controversial "Amen," not just because its joyous and gorgeous gospel beat is augmented by Meek Mill and Drake's best College Dropout impressions, but more because it is the only time on the album where Meek takes a chance at breaking out of his mold and succeeds - so resoundingly, in fact, that its easy to forget how much of a victory it is for him.
But ultimately songs like these are in the minority on Dreams and Nightmares. There are many notable stylistic missteps; the chorus to “Rich & Famous” is very annoying, and “Maybach Curtains” suffers both from Nas' lustreless arrogance (“I’m a perfectionist to a fault, like Jesus”), and contributions from John Legend, who has shown, both here and on G.O.O.D. Music’s Cruel Summer, that he is just making bad music right now. It all sounds like he teamed up with a bunch of dudes from a basement at the Berklee College of Music and didn’t bother to tell them to cool it with the drum fills and bass riffs. “Young and Gettin’ It” unfortunately features Kirko Bangz, as well as the strange production choice to auto-tune Meek Mill, probably the world’s least melodic rapper.
The rest of the album is weighed down by maudlin, piano-based songs where Meek struggles to match his emotional range with either his conceptual ambition ("Tony's Story Pt. 2") or the import of his subject matter ("Traumatized"). It’s worth it to note that Meek Mill really does have some compelling stuff to talk about, though you wouldn’t know that from his past features. He laments the death of his father several times on Dreams and Nightmares, most powerfully on “Young Kings,” when he intimates “If I could live my life again I wouldn’t do it differently/Probably bring my father back, just so he could witness me.” That he attempts to tackle this topic isn’t just brave, it’s also a look at the complexity and pain of a young artist who hasn’t quite figured out how to express himself as completely as he'd like. So while it’s clear throughout this album that Meek Mill is still a young, volatile, and limited artist, its also clear he aspires to, and may be capable of, more than the opportunities he’s been afforded by the MMG machine.