Status Ain't Hood

Meek Mill Is A Rapper, Not A Cautionary Tale

A year and a half ago, Meek Mill was the most vital and most commercially relevant unreformed street-rapper left working. Where the entire commercial rap world had drifted toward airy sonics and lyrical sensitivity, Meek stayed fearsome. Alone in rap’s A-list, he rapped like he had words and ideas that he could not contain, like he’d be physically torn open if he did not rap this shit as loudly and aggressively as possible right this very second. Even when he was just talking about sex or money, he was intense and fiery and passionate. He made emotional music — music where, when you’re stopped at a light, you’re getting funny looks from the people in the car next to you because you’re rapping along too animatedly.

Things were paying off for Meek. He’d skated right out of a prison stay into a relationship with Nicki Minaj. He’d released the deeply solid Dreams Worth More Than Money, which sold nearly 250,000 copies in its first week, handing Meek his first-ever #1. He’d planned a grand arena tour with Nicki. After years of cultivating a fanbase nearly as passionate as he was — first as a young hyena on the local Philadelphia mixtape circuit, then as a supporting player in Rick Ross’ Maybach Music empire — he’d finally become a star. And then, with one nighttime tweetstorm, Meek undid so much of his work.

The outcome of the Meek Mill/Drake feud was not preordained. When it first started bubbling, I was excited; finally, someone close to Drake’s level was going to challenge his dominance! It didn’t happen, of course. Meek turned in an absolutely historical bed-shitting performance. Drake gave us “Back To Back,” an all-time great rap diss track. It’s not that “Back To Back” had any lines that were especially withering. It’s that it was a great song — great enough to work its way into just about every DJ set for months, great enough that people were dancing to it. This was new. People weren’t dancing to “Hit ‘Em Up” or “2nd Round KO” or “Ether.” Meek had inspired a culturally omnipresent artifact, one that existed entirely to spite him.

It would be one thing if Meek had an answer loaded up and ready to go, or if he’d hit back with anything remotely comparable. He didn’t, and he didn’t. It was almost mystifying — as if Meek believed that, just by exposing the idea that Drake had used ghostwriters, he would automatically win. It didn’t work that way. People didn’t care. Meek was working from an old street-rap playbook. In a lot of ways, that ’90s hardass mentality was what made him great in the first place. Against Drake, it undid him. (Someone on Twitter, I forget who, pointed out that Meek lost the feud the moment he decided to make the story about Drake getting pissed on in a movie theater a footnote in his response song, rather than the central thesis.)

Meek just didn’t have anything shattering, and as he and Drake continued throwing little digs at each other for months, it just seemed like Meek was out of gas. Neither did Meek have a whole lot to say during ensuing mini-feuds with people like the Game and Beanie Sigel. It was sad. Things were going badly. For a while, it looked like Meek and Nicki were broken up. (In April, Nicki told Ellen DeGeneres that she was “single,” though it now looks like they’re together again.) Meek did three months on house arrest because of some trifling parole violation earlier this year. None of it was good. All of it looked like a downward spiral.

So it brings me great pleasure to report that Meek is back to rapping his ass off. Somewhere during the whole Drake situation and everything that followed it, people somehow forgot that Meek Mill was the man who made “Dreams & Nightmares (Intro),” that he was an absolute monster of a rapper. Last week, Meek revived Dreamchasers, the mixtape series where he’s done much of his best work. The first Dreamchasers, from 2011, was Meek’s big come-up moment; it’s where he let loose with “House Party” and “I’ma Boss,” where he proved that his scattershot Philly style could resonate within rap’s mainstream. With 2012’s Dreamchasers 2, he became a star, shining alongside people like Drake and Kendrick Lamar. He proved that a euphoric, R&B-influenced song like “Amen” could still sound hard if Meek was the one rapping it. Dreamchasers 3, from 2013 was less of a milestone and more of a star-studded display of dominance, but it worked on that level. All of them were mixtapes that played like albums, and all of them showcased a restless, feverish, driven voice that could still make hits and project charisma everywhere.

Three years later, that Meek Mill, once again, is the same Meek Mill we’re hearing on DC4, the first Dreamchasers to be released as a commercial album rather than a free-download mixtape. (Now that we’re all on streaming services these days, there’s not really much of a difference anyway.) DC4, like the first Dreamchasers, opens with Meek barking over bombastic classical music. The album has no crossover-attempt singles, no overbearing R&B hooks. Other than Nicki, the guests tend toward young hardass sensations: 21 Savage, Quavo, YFN Lucci, Pusha T, fellow Philly kid Lil Uzi Vert. And unless I’m missing something, the only time anyone even makes oblique reference to Drake is when fellow Drake adversary Tory Lanez refers to a quarter-mil as a “Quentin Miller.” The whole tape works as something other than a reboot or an update from Meek. It’s a retrenchment, a back-to-basics move.

Now: DC4 is not the best Dreamchasers tape. It’s probably the weakest, which says more about the overall quality of the series than it does about this installment. It finds Meek rapping with force and urgency, but it’s not quite the same force and urgency he had when he was willing himself out of obscurity. It sounds like five years ago; the only real clue that this comes from 2016 is the presence of all those very-2016 guest-rappers. DC4 might not even be the week’s best back-to-basics blockbuster rap-sequel album; on that score, it has serious competition from Jeezy’s shockingly strong Trap Or Die 3. But DC4 is the album that Meek needed to make right now. It’s a hard, committed album with no skippable tracks, an unrelenting string of bangers that reminds us, at a crucial time, why we cared about this guy in the first place.

The Drake feud is always going to be a huge moment in Meek’s career. It’s probably always going to be the hugest. But if Meek Mill can keep making music like this, then maybe the rest of us can stop thinking about him in relation to Drake. Maybe we can once again recognize him as the great rapper that he still is.

FURIOUS FIVE

1. Skepta – “No Security (Halloween Sound)”
I lived outside London for a year when I was nine, and they didn’t really have Halloween over there then. My brother and I couldn’t really go trick-or-treating, so my parents let us walk up to one end of our block and back again, in costume, and then gave us some candy. It was really sad. If Halloween is suddenly a thing in the UK now, then that’s good — partly because it means kids will not go through that bullshit and partly because it means we get a song like this one.

2. Jeezy – “So What”
Jeezy’s rediscovery of that ferocious elemental gothic stomp thing is making me wonder if I still have my orange-glitter bootleg angry-snowman T-shirt buried in my garage somewhere. He sounds mean again. He should always sound mean.

3. Curren$y – “Told Me That” (Feat. Starlito)
Curren$y releases altogether too much music, and he sleepwalks through a lot of it. But when he has a lively slap of a beat and a sharp, engaged guest-rapper like Starlito along the way, he can maintain his whole dazed, heavy-lidded vibe while stepping things up. He can be a great rapper, and he can still be himself. I wish he’d do that more often, but I’ll take it where I can get it.

4. Nacho Picasso – “Attack Of The Titan”
21 Savage is a controversial figure in rap circles, but I am very much in the “pro” camp, mostly because he sounds so effortlessly bloodthirsty and sinister. In his own way, Nacho Picasso has been doing that same thing for years, and he doesn’t get enough credit for one of the most dependably ghoulish presences in rap.

5. Section Boyz – “Worst” (Feat. Skepta)
The Purge is a stupid fucking idea for a movie, but it is a great idea for a rap video, especially for a song with this level of hectic darkness working for it.

IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO