Rap music is too vast and overwhelming a thing for any one song to encapsulate all the multitudes it contains. But if I had to pick one song that best encapsulates what circa-now rap music can be, that song would probably be “Dreams And Nightmares (Intro),” the breathless track that opened Meek Mill’s 2012 album Dreams And Nightmares. The song opens with contemplative piano, Meek rapping airly about how far he’s come in the world, remembering past traumas in sharp, concrete detail: “In the matter of time I spent on some locked-up shit / In the back of the paddy wagon, cuffs locked on wrists.” Up until then, it’s the sort of song you expect to hear a newly-minted major-label rap star, which is what Meek was, use to start an album. He’s breathing deep, looking around, taking stock of where he was and where he is now. He’s delighting in the money he’s not sure what to do with yet: “When I bought the Rolls Royce, they thought it was leased / Then I bought that new Ferrari, hater rest in peace.” It’s a song about reorienting yourself, figuring out that this is the fulcrum point of your life and all that hardship is behind you. Or it’s that, anyway, until halfway through, when the beat abruptly switches up into something darker and more urgent. Meek’s voice all of a sudden lurches into gear, taking on the paranoiac intensity that made him a name in mixtape circles. It’s an immediate change: “Hold up, wait a minute! Y’all thought I was finished?” Out of nowhere, he sounds like he’s ripping car doors off their hinges with his teeth. He’s still bragging, but his words take on a murderous bent: “You fuck around, you fuck around, you fuck around and get killed!” The fulcrum point is gone. He’s still the guy in the streets, and he’s rapping like everything good that happened to him could disappear in the blink of an eye. It’s a staggering performance, and if you hear it in the right mood, it’s enough to make you feel invincible. A song like that is all I ever wanted from rap music.
In a way, “Dreams And Nightmares (Intro)” was the worst possible intro for an album, if only because everything else couldn’t help but feel like a letdown after that. Dreams And Nightmares is a solid album with a few absolute bangers, but it has a lot of the same problems that most major-label rap albums had until very recently. In the interests of chasing a hit, it forced its star into situations that didn’t really play to his strengths. Meek’s voice is a vengeful, frenetic yawp, and his whole freaked-out attacking style is what brought him into prominence in the first place. In his native Philadelphia, he came up a few years after the whole State Property boom, when just about every promising rapper in the city ended up under the Roc-A-Fella umbrella for at least a few minutes. When those guys were attempting to figure out their place in the post-Roc world, Meek was coming up on the battle circuit. And he brought that same urgency to his Flamerz mixtape series, becoming the sort of rapper who comes up on local cult appeal rather than internet buzz. When Rick Ross introduced his initial Maybach Music roster, Meek was in there with a couple of internet-reared rappers, Wale and Pill, and the sheer charge of his voice meant that his tracks from the first Self-Made compilation — “Tupac Back,” “Ima Boss” — were the ones that resonated. But after that, Meek’s Dreamchasers mixtapes, rather than his proper album, were what pushed him forward. So I’m delighted to report that Meek’s new almost-a-surprise album Dreams Worth More Than Money comes a whole lot closer to keeping the bottled intensity of Meek’s mixtapes while translating that feeling to the sweep of a blockbuster rap album.
A couple of life events loom huge on Dreams Worth More Than Money. One is Meek’s incarceration. Last year, he was pretty much done with Dreams Worth More Than Money and getting ready to release it when he was arrested and sent to prison on a probation violation. Meek hadn’t actually done anything, but a judge decided that he hadn’t done enough to get permission for out-of-state concerts and that he’d made fun of his probation officer on Twitter. That is some piddly nickel-and-dime shit, and some judge decided that it was enough to take away his freedom for months. That had to be a jolt to Meek’s system, a reminder that he might never insulate himself completely from the chaos that birthed him. And it’s not like pre-prison Meek ever needed extra motivation to rap like a motherfucker, but there’s just a little more pent-up force audible on Dreams Worth More Than Money than there was on its predecessor. “Shout out that judge that denied me my bail,” Meek raps on the operatic intro “Lord Knows.” “It made me smarter, it made me go harder.”
The other event: Meek’s new relationship. Writing about Nicki Minaj’s breakup album The Pinkprint last year, I noted Meek’s presence on a couple of tracks and idly wondered about how cool it would be if The Pinkprint turned out to be an album about Nicki getting out of a relationship and then falling in love with Meek. As it turns out, that was exactly what was going on. Meek and Nicki are now the most adorable, Instagrammable couple in all of rap music — maybe all of pop culture in general — and they’re already dodging engagement rumors. Cryptic tweets from the pair are already becoming the stuff of Jezebel thinkpieces. And on a couple of DWMTM tracks, Meek and Nicki rap back and forth at each other with a plainspoken, easygoing chemistry. “All Eyes On You” and “Bad For You” are the sort of album tracks that usually drive me nuts — the moody and melody-driven songs that interrupt the bangers. (Nicki doesn’t even rap on “Bad For You”; she just sings.) But I’d have to be one hell of a grinch to get upset at hearing these two rap tweaked Biggie lyrics back and forth at each other, sounding as contented as I’ve ever heard them. As a result of the boosted visibility that came with the relationship, as well as a string of stellar tracks, Meek now has about 10 times the career momentum of Rick Ross, his ostensible label boss. This feels like his moment, like Meek is ready to take over the world right now.
That said, Dreams Worth More Than Money feels slightly out-of-step in the age of the grand-statement rap concept album. Meek isn’t trying to draw up a grand image of what it’s like to be black in America in 2015. He’s a street-rapper making street-rap music. The album has tons of producers and big-name guests and orchestral widescreen beats, and it feels more like an album engineered to blow in in 2010 than one engineered to blow up right now. But that’s fine. Meek is so good at making this sort of music, and it would be a shame to see it disappear completely. And Meek doesn’t just sound like he’s keeping a flame burning. He sounds like he belongs on the rap-stardom top tier. “Lord Knows” isn’t the same level of intro track that “Dreams And Nightmares (Intro)” was, but with its fired-up delivery and its orchestral bombast, it’s a hell of a statement regardless. On “Check,” Meek attacks the track an impossible fervor, his voice crackling off the track like cartoon lightning bolts. On “R.I.C.O.,” he steals a really good Drake track right out from under Drake’s nose. And “Classic,” with its tumbling Bangladesh breakbeat is enough to spur Meek to a casually slick kind of greatness: “Jumping out them Benzos, me and your bitch and her friends low / She told me I was friendzoned? What? I’m in the endzone / Touchdown with the two-point conversion, give her that dick long / She busting like the clip long, Uber to send your bitch home.” I seriously thought about writing this whole piece just by typing out Swizz Beatz’s ad-libs verbatim: “Whoo! It’s hot outside, man! Meek Milli’s coming, daddy!” Swizz yelps with glee throughout the track, and Meek earns every last yip.
Dreams Worth More Than Money isn’t an instant classic album or anything. It doesn’t have the scope and cohesion that something like Vince Staples’ also-out-this-week Summertime ’06 has, and it peters out a bit toward the end, with too many slow and contemplative tracks. A song like “Pullin Up” feels less like a Meek Mill track with the Weeknd singing on it than a Weeknd track with Meek Mill rapping on it. Still, the best moments here are just about untouchable. And unlike a lot of the other great rap albums that have come along on recent months, Dreams Worth More Than Money is a fun record, something that’ll sound great in your car or at your barbecue months from now. Summer needed an album like this. And if Meek has finally broken through to that upper rap-stardom level, then rap is a whole lot better off.
1. Young Thug – “Money”
I love the idea of Young Thug ruining Lil Wayne’s summer by releasing a whole London On Da Track-produced mixtape on the same day as Wayne is planning to release the Free Weezy Album. I love it even more if it means a track full of songs as catchy as “Money,” maybe the most offhandedly fly thing we’ve heard from Thug this year.
2. Puff Daddy And The Family – “Finna Get Loose” (Feat. Pharrell)
If I didn’t have something as big as a new Meek Mill album to write about this week, this column would’ve been all about the ecstatic, amazing Bad Boy reunion medley at the BET Awards. And when Pharrell came out to do this song in the middle of it, I figured it was some early-’00s Neptunes/Diddy collab that I’d completely forgotten about. That’s the nicest thing I could say about it. Tracks like “Pass The Courvoisier” were fucking great, and this belongs in its company.
3. David Banner – “My Uzi” (Feat. Big K.R.I.T.)
The two most important rappers in Mississippi’s history team up to sample Pimp C and to rap with conviction about guns over the sort of synth-wriggle that gets under your fingernails. The outro turns into orchestral film-score music so quickly that I wondered if I had other music playing in another tab.
4. Fredo Santana & Maxo Kream – “Big Homies”
Hard-as-fuck weirdos from Chicago and Houston team up to talk slick shit over a murderous lo-fi glimmer-beat. I’m starting to feel like I should pay a whole lot more attention to Maxo Kream.
5. French Montana – “Lose It” (Feat. Rick Ross & Lil Wayne)
I like that “go Gucci Mane” is now a verb, that everyone knows what it means. And I like that it’s attaining that status on a Kanye West-produced event-rap posse cut. I don’t like thinking about how rap would be a whole lot better if every song with French Montana on it had Gucci Mane on it instead.
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO
Scalia's full dissent https://t.co/z21OVWuVpD
— Jia Tolentino (@jiatolentino) June 26, 2015