Having yelped his way to stardom largely via his two rock solid Dreamchasers mixtapes, Meek Mill has quietly (ironically) become the most prominent street rapper in the mainstream since his MMG boss Rick Ross emerged on the scene in the mid-2000s. And on his major label debut, Dreams & Nightmares, Meek is caught between fitting the mold of a crew-endorsed heavyweight and pursuing the sound and style that put him in such prime position in the first place.
The album’s title track, the very first song on Dreams & Nightmares, is divided along similar, yet more basic sonic lines. It seems like a fake-out at first — the calm before the storm — glittering keys giving way to an apocalyptic rap opera 90 seconds into the song. But the album actually ends up sounding as much if not more like the pensive, musical first half of the intro as the bullish second half. It’s a direction that manifests itself least successfully near the back end of the album, which crawls by in a solemn blur of somber pianos.
So while Dreams & Nightmares is not without its more forceful cuts (“In God We Trust,” “Real Ni**as Come First”), fans of Meek’s more aggressive style will be disappointed by the lack of songs capable of matching the gleeful ruckus of mixtape anthems like “I’ma Boss” and “House Party.” By the same token, the shifts in production allow Meek to showcase the interesting and memorable things he can do with tempo, cadence, and the like — when the energy starts to ramp up, he hastens his flow, intensifies his delivery, and punctuates his lines with force; but he’s also capable of showing off a more measured tone when it’s called for. It’s how he manages to rarely sound out of place, even on tracks like the organ drenched hit single “Amen,” the rare Drake-featuring collaboration that doesn’t get swallowed up whole by its big-name guest.
Meek also has an understated way with words, a skill that probably goes unnoticed by those unable to get past his bark of a voice. On “Polo & Shell Tops,” he hits on simple but affecting reflection and cold blooded greed within a single line: “Old fiends coppin’ work due to their old dreams / that got shattered / it ain’t matter ‘cause we thirst cream.” When he goes full out heart-on-sleeve introspection on the grief-laden “Traumatized,” he conjures up some of the album’s most startling images: “’Cause when my Aunt Rhonda died, she looked Tock in his eyes / Saw death coming / when she seen it she just cried… Man I almost got murked in front of the same church / my dad got carried in / family got married in.”
Where Dreams & Nightmares loses its identity is in its willingness to open itself to the influence of the MMG assembly line. All the trappings are here: the faceless braggadocio (the Auto-Tune bleeding “Young & Gettin’ It”); the “trap” record with Ross (“Believe It”); the opulent John Legend collaboration (“Maybach Curtains”); even the sleazy R&B crossover (“Lay Up”). Not all of these tracks constitute complete missteps, but it’s hard to imagine them having much staying power when Ross himself — the author of these archetypes — had trouble making them stick on his similarly formulaic God Forgives, I Don’t.
Dreams & Nightmares offers glimpses into how Meek Mill rode high octane street rap to national prominence, but it also casts Meek as an artist who knows how to play his position, perhaps too well. “Double M / Yeah, that’s my team / Rozay the captain / I’m the lieutenant,” he raps on the title track. Maybe next time around he’ll be more willing to break with the status quo.
Label: Maybach Music, Warner Bros. | Producers: Jahlil Beats, KeY Wane, Cardiak, Tommy Brown, Boi-1da, Tone the Beat Bully, The Black Metaphor, Lee Major, Kane Beatz, Ashanti Floyd, DJ Infamous, The Agency, Travis Sayles, Kenoe, Got Koke, The Renegades