Chain Heavy: Meek Mill and the Cost of Success

Chain Heavy: Meek Mill and the Cost of SuccessPhotography by Liz Barclay

Meek stresses about a lot more on the record. “I seen real niggas drop, I’ve seen real niggas hit, I’ve seen real niggas die, because a real nigga snitch,” he raps on the chorus to “In God We Trust.” Dreams & Nightmaresis an uncompromising album that will be most highly valued by the hardcore audience that's already loyal to Meek. His latest single, “Young & Gettin' It," is an at-the-buzzer lob at a hit record that's unlikely to win new converts. The rest of the LP has a laser sight's narrowness of scope. A few attempts to break from its rugged vision aren't unwelcome—the Trey Songz-accompanied “Layup” is a moment of levity that adds balance—but with all the work Meek has put in over the past year, those tracks feel beside the point.

 

Whether due to the nature of the game, Meek's personality, or the childhood traumas he hints at on Dreams & Nightmares, Meek Mill’s story is usually held in tight control. But the new album contains a number of rare moments when he allows for heartfelt and terrorizing details.

 

Though Dreams & Nightmares, which was released this week, is technically his debut, Meek already has an entire catalog of music: two mixtapes as part of a Philly foursome called the Bloodhoundz (2005–2006), two mixtapes in his The Real Me series (2007–2008), four in his Flamerz series (during a brief dalliance with T.I.'s Grand Hustle label, 2008–2010), one tape entitled Mr. Philadelphia (2010), two Dreamchasers mixtapes (2011–2012), and significant contributions to most Maybach Music Group projects (including both Self Made label compilations, 2011–2012).

Until now, these were all exercises, to one degree or another, in building buzz—first locally, then to attract the attention of national labels, until February 2011, when he finally reached the point of Rick Ross' deus ex machina intervention, the moment at which his dream-chasing reached the verge of reality. “All we do is get money,” Ross said as he announced signing Meek, who he called “the future.” Meek took the opportunity to reflect on how far he had come, and how much further he planned to go, a statement that would define his overriding focus: "From a nigga coming from the bottom, two years ago I was in my motherfuckin' cell, hoping I don't get 20 years...get out, take that shit to the next level."

Over the past year and a half he has done exactly that.

Despite Dreams & Nightmares’ compact runtime (it clocks in under an hour) the LP feels particularly generous because Meek opens himself up more than usual. His mixtapes, usually heavy on high-energy rapping and sparse on personal revelations, seem stingy by comparison. Whether due to the nature of the game, Meek's personality, or the childhood traumas he hints at on Dreams & Nightmares, Meek Mill’s story is usually held in tight control. But the new album contains a number of rare moments when he allows for heartfelt and terrorizing details.

Perhaps it was his state of mind while recording: “I finished most of my album over a two-week period of time,” Meek explains. “I had no choice because I was on a time limit. It was pressure so I just had to do it.”

The album's strongest moments occur when Meek's armor cracks, and his shout-flow is unleashed in a raw, searing onslaught of syllables over tensile, alarm-klaxon production. He may spend his days giving interviews in office buildings, but according to his music, the rapper still wakes up sweating and trusts no one. His stories are peppered with ever-present threats of violence; even “Young & Gettin' It,” the ostensible radio single, crackles with a tense, anxious energy.

His track “Traumatized,” about the murder of his father and his desire for vengeance, isn't the kind of thing that will appeal to casual rap fans; it's too serious, requires that you accept its searing narrative at face value. The words are not veiled by any sort of artful wordplay.

“That's what I wanted on my album. I wanted to get real personal. I wanted people to know me, know what I was about, know how my mind think, everything. ‘Traumatized,’ I just be getting down to personal scenarios in my life, and explaining how I feel, and this is how I felt at the time. I like to be real raw in my music. It's real reality. This is really the way people be thinking. These are real things that happen.”

 

'I finished most of my album over a two-week period of time,' Meek explains. 'I had no choice because I was on a time limit. It was pressure so I just had to do it.'

 

If those moments are the nightmares, the dreams are baubles laid out on a conference room table in the Roc Nation offices. “MMG nigga, chain all VS,” he rapped on “Burn” from his Dreamchasers 2 mixtape. “I ain’t with the BS.” VS is a technical term referring to a diamond’s clarity—it stands for “very slightly” included, describing gems with only minor blemishes that are difficult to detect even under 10x magnification. Joe the Jeweler is the man whose job it is to separate the VS from the BS.

“These are the Miami Cuban links,” Joe says of the chains Meek wore to the listening session. “These are right now the hottest chain, probably. Every rap star wants these chains. They’re solid gold, and clean clean diamonds, VS diamonds. Meek really came out first, showed them off. From there, everyone wants them right now. Rose gold is also one of the hottest things, that color—see? That color, it's coming back. Nice, classic color.”

There’s a story behind every piece, and Joe doesn’t mind describing each one in detail: “The Versace head, that's a different, vintage-type look—old school,” he says. “This bead chain, just glassy. See the work, the labor?” He gestures at a chain with a large “M” and Meek's name written across it. “That one, Meek Mill, one of the first pieces we made him. Black diamonds was real, real hot, so that looks good. This gold yachtmaster, this watch has like $35,000 worth of diamonds. Got all VS diamonds.”

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