One of the most indelible videos that entered my Twitter timeline in 2021 was of Philadelphia rapper Meek Mill bunny hopping on a tennis court. Meek, whose debut album Dreams And Nightmares turns 10 this Sunday, was dancing because he lost a bet to his billionaire friend Michael Rubin. This was far from the image of Meek that hip-hop culture had when he first came to the game.
A wolf that hounded the beat of any given song, Meek’s music was akin to hearing a broadcaster call a game-winning home run. He and Rick Ross were insightful preservers of capitalism in the Obama era. Where Rick Ross was lush and warm, Meek was an icy brute. Maybach Music Group was the hip-hop equivalent of a political machine raking in money, with Ross as their Boss Tweed – a leader known for doing whatever it took to turn a profit.
To call Ross a liar in his music was reductive. He practiced self-actualization. He wanted to be a boss. He became one. That’s it. What was undoubtedly true, though, was how good they sounded together. “Ima Boss,” from the MMG compilation album Self Made Vol 1, was a Jahlil Beats staple – all sirens, no musicality – but it was also a showcase for how excessively successful Ross had become versus how rich Meek was trying to become. Meek is simple but effective: “They say they gon’ rob me, see me never do shit/ ‘Cause they know that’s the reason they gon’ end up on a news clip.” Ross’ verse – still one of my favorites from that era – is a classic in his canon of middlebrow luxury rap. He’s a bear: “No love, cry when only babies die/ And when I go, that casket better cost a hundred thou’.”
The aforementioned video of Meek Mill bunny hopping around for his rich white friend would have been troubling in a vacuum, but it was even worse seeing how far we’d come from Meek riding around Philadelphia on dirt bikes in the video to “Ima Boss,” the exceptional “Lord Knows” soundtracking a training montage in Creed, or “Dreams And Nightmares (Intro),” which crossed over without compromising an inch of its intensity. Meek wasn’t supposed to be that guy who danced for his white friends; he was the lieutenant on one of the most successful Black labels to come out in years. To see him dancing like that was to see the company he keeps now and how foolish he looked while hanging with the ruling class.
When he was 18, Robert Rahmeek Williams, the youngest of two children, was arrested, then beaten profusely, by two Philadelphia police officers for having an illegal firearm. “I had a concussion, braids ripped out, stitches. My blood was on the ceiling, on the floor,” Meek would later tell writer Ben Detrick of Billboard. For this, Meek was placed on probation. Legal trouble would continue for him, both due to mistakes and system overreach. It’s as synonymous with Meek’s career as the Philadelphia Eagles coming out to “Dreams And Nightmares.”
Around 2009, Meek found a home at T.I.’s Grand Hustle Records imprint. (He had a good relationship with the legendary DJ Drama.) His music was similar but different — already animated, but staccato where he’d later let his voice run wild. Because of a seven-month jail stint, Meek’s album failed to come out. Then, he decided to go in a different direction. In 2011, he signed with Maybach Music Group. Meek’s stock grew quickly. He was excitable. He was on the XXL Freshman List. “Tupac Back,” on Self Made Vol 1, was a hit. It looked like the kid who rapped on Berks Street was going to have mainstream success for a long time. His subsequent mixtape, Dreamchasers 2, was excellent. On the fourteenth track, Meek rapped about his rise, in a sequence that is among the best of his career:
Locked in cages, have ’em fighting over cookies
And lunch trays, just happy them days ain’t never killed ’em
Yea I remember, it was a hot December
Niggas die on top of winter, cause them kids need them toys
Well Santa Claus don’t see them boys
Or see the girls around here, there’s Jack boys down stairs
No man with the big bag just man with the big gat
“Amen,” featuring Drake, is jubilant in the way Drake’s best post-Take Care verses were. Showing people that he could flex his muscles with some of the best bullies in the game made for great theater. Meek took advantage of that.
Dreams And Nightmares opens with a particular exclamation. “Is this what they been waiting for? You ready?” Meek barks over a beat by the Beat Bully. Midway through the intro track, the beat switches, and Meek announces, “Hold up, wait a minute, y’all thought I was finished?” then launches into some of his most ferocious rapping on record. The genius in this song isn’t in any single lyric, but in the performance. Just when you think he’s wrapping up, Meek re-energizes you: “If you diss me in your raps/ I’ll get your pussy ass stuck up!” To enjoy “Dreams And Nightmares (Intro)” in all of its maximal glory, it is mandatory that you hear it with a group: People will shout it with unabashed glory. Goofy lines like “Shorty trying to bless me, like she said achoo” are set aside with a song this triumphant. Despite some of the mediocre bars, it was a longer and more working-class version of the “Dynasty Intro.” Rappers have tried to replicate it since but can’t capture the same feeling that Meek brought on that record. Roddy Richh. Cardi B. Even Meek himself. But they can’t – it’s always going to be the most popular thing Meek ever does.
The rest of the album is solid too. “Traumatized” – Meek’s best song to date – is hostile. Meek claims that he is in a long line of people that he grew up with that are no longer with us. Along with his dad, those dead homies are a part of his legacy, in a corporeal way: “Last night I went to sleep and woke up with the chills.” “Tony Story Pt. II” shows Meek as a gifted storyteller. Where Kendrick Lamar was making waves in Compton for being an insular narrator who dove into parables or reflectiveness, Meek was bombastic. Everything was on the page, but it was still raw, despite existing over the hollow precision of MMG beats. Some of the guests didn’t fare as well in that context. “Maybach Curtains” with John Legend was a big get for Meek, but it’s overwrought, like every Legend hook is – and Nas is in Life Is Good mode.
Meek easily outshined those guys, but this isn’t even his peak. He’d reach greater creative heights with Dreams Worth Than Money and Wins And Losses. The Drake beef was sloppy – “Back To Back” is barely good, but Meek was ill-prepared to battle a man who was on top of the world. Emerging in the middle of their battle, Wins And Losses didn’t get the attention it deserved. In March 2017, Meek was sentenced to two to four in state prison for popping a wheelie. Eventually, this became a national story, with buppie rappers like Jay-Z asking Bob Kraft and Michael Rubin to help them free Meek. People used it as their “in” to the money that the hip-hop community can bring. It’s good PR for Bob Kraft.
Obviously, when you get out of a place meant to psychologically break you, all that matters is that you’re out. But something feels wrong about it coming through Kraft – a man who supported Donald Trump, who allowed private prisons to flourish, who tweeted that when “looting starts, the shooting starts,” and who called NFL players “sons of bitches” for joining Colin Kaepernick’s protest against police violence. To see people with the moral corruption of Kraft join the fight to free Meek makes fans wonder if the rich are serious about criminal justice or if this is about the nature of rap celebrity. They helped Meek because they could make money off of him. But those same people didn’t help Drakeo The Ruler – nor are they currently helping Young Thug and Gunna. Every situation is different. The YSL gang case is complicated, but it surely shows that Meek’s friends pick and choose which cases they want to fight for.
As a fan of his music, it pained me to see Meek on that famed tennis court. All my panicked fears about the people he was hanging with had come true. Even if Rubin and Meek are especially close – which appears to be the case – it looked like he was submissive to a culture of people who only accepted Black creativity when they could profit off of it. At one point, Meek created a moment in hip-hop that fans won’t ever forget. Even now, “Dreams And Nightmares” is everywhere. Meanwhile the man responsible for it seems to have been indoctrinated into a ruling class culture, made to aimlessly enjoy Hamptons parties in buildings that he doesn’t even own. Meek Mill got out of jail, but the man in that video did not look like he was free.