Seven years after he first started chasing his hip-hop dreams, it's clear that Meek Mill hasn't left his nightmares behind.

Written by David Drake (@somanyshrimp)

On the evening of October 10, Electric Lady Studios in Manhattan was filled to capacity for the first New York listening session to preview tracks from Meek Mill’s debut album, Dreams & Nightmares. Ill-timed appearances from Jay-Z and Will Smith, both of whom left before Meek arrived, helped fill the room with charged anticipation. When Meek finally appeared, accompanied by Rick Ross, he wore four gleaming pieces around his neck—two smaller, understated chains, and two larger cuban link chains made of solid rose gold and covered in VS diamonds.

 

Meek looks taller and skinnier in person, with a surplus of nervous energy that keeps him moving, eyes darting around the room. If you stay focused on him, waiting for eye contact, he will meet your gaze, challenging.

 

After running through the entirety of his record, he directed a man behind the glass booth to play two party-oriented tracks featuring 2 Chainz and Juvenile, respectively, which weren't finalized in time to make the record. Both songs breathe life into the crowd that had spent the rest of their evening paying rapt attention to an album dominated by dark, chilling explorations of betrayal and paranoia. Surrounded by a scrum of photographers as if he were running for office, Meek never stood still, remaining in constant motion, rapping along with each track, his jewelry swaying as his body moved in time with the beat.

Days later he’s still in perpetual motion. High above the streets of midtown Manhattan on the 39th floor offices of Roc Nation—where Meek Mill signed a management deal this past May—Meek sits, then stands, then moves along the conference table. He’s surrounded by the trappings of a rapper promoting his major-label debut: a stylist, publicity reps, assorted friends from Philly, a photographer, and this interviewer.

Another notable presence at the table is Joe the Jeweler of Shyne Jewelers, 339 South Street in Philadelphia. Joe’s been Meek's jeweler for three years. Meek has directed clients his way (Joe mentions Sean Kingston and “a lot of athletes”), while Joe's services are focused primarily on one thing, which he conveys in a mild Israeli accent: “The quality of the diamonds—clarity. A lot of jewelers do nice work, but sometimes don't use the best quality. Meek wants only the best.” He makes up a word to describe them: “Un-compete-able.”

Since Meek was picked up by Rick Ross in early 2011 on the strength of his single “Rose Red,” the Philly rapper has been one of Maybach Music Group’s most reliable hitmakers, racking up smashes like "Tupac Back," “I’m A Boss” and "Amen." With the assistance of MMG’s non-stop promotional assault, Meek has grinded his way to the top in one of the worst music industry climates in history.

 

'I don't feel stressed out from nothing in the rap game,' he explains. 'Everything's cool with me. I've been in jail before. Things like that is what I stress about.'

 

Many are relying on Meek to prove that the traditional street rap audience will still purchase records in an era where digital outlets like LiveMixtapes, WorldStarHipHop, and YouTube supply listeners with an unlimited stream of free content. Meek claims to be unconcerned: “I’m excited about [the release]. I ain’t worried about it.” He’s good-humored about the promotional demands of the industry, but remains political and guarded. Meek answers questions quickly, and it's hard to avoid the feeling that he's sticking to a well-rehearsed script. If he seems restless and distracted, perhaps it’s because he left his son in Philadelphia to come to New York for this interview.

Meek looks taller and skinnier in person, with a surplus of nervous energy that keeps him moving, eyes darting around the room. If you stay focused on him, waiting for eye contact, he will meet your gaze, challenging. But moments later, he'll be off again.

“I don't feel stressed out from nothing in the rap game," he explains. "Everything's cool with me. The money's been flowing, the raps been flowing. I ain't got too much to stress about. I've been in jail before. Things like that is what I stress about.”

 

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.”

 

Meek earned these rewards through a steady grassroots grind; references to them are littered throughout his catalog. His rap style is at once an exposed nerve—with vocals that disturb and unsettle—and the epitome of control, displaying technically-flawless, fluid performance.

One rapper I spoke with observed that every time he hears Meek, it makes him want to rap, right then, much as televised NBA games inspire kids across the country to lace up their Nikes. Meek's delivery has a muscular athleticism (check his fluent double-time on the title track), each line delivered with an almost acrobatic grace. Where Kendrick Lamar, with his critical eye and self-conscious introspection, is a writer's writer, Meek is a rapper's rapper. The viscera of his performance is key to understanding how his music operates.

 

Where Kendrick Lamar, with his critical eye and self-conscious introspection, is a writer's writer, Meek is a rapper's rapper. The viscera of his performance is key to understanding how his music operates.

 

His style was honed in Philadelphia’s crucible of hip-hop culture: the street corner battle rap scene. One of the things that makes Meek so unique is that he is at once of-a-place and universal. Philadelphia informs his music deeply, but he appeals to many beyond its borders.

“In Philly, it's all about lyrics,” says Meek. “They don't care about hooks, beats—none of that. Mostly it's about lyrical ability and ways you can do things.” But for Meek, the importance of lyrics is in their resonance for his followers. Most of the stories Meek weaves share the same basic street context. They draw their power not from breadth, but by embodying a singular contradiction, at once vulnerable in content (“Man, my life’s so real/Last week went to sleep and woke up with the chills”) and aggressively guarded, even threatening, in style.

Meek’s ability to connect with his audience relies heavily upon his own story, one that has been mostly hinted at and sketched, rather than drawn out in detail. His authenticity depends as much on what’s left unspoken as what is said. It’s this feeling that grants him authority; how else could he get away with a song like “Maybach Curtains”? The schmaltzy production and overwrought John Legend hook suddenly lock into focus thanks to Meek's singular gravitas.

Inside a Manhattan recording studio filled with the New York hip-hop elite, Meek’s jewelry is flashy but decorative. And as beautiful as the chains are up close, they have little significance on the 39th floor of a midtown Manhattan building. It’s difficult to understand if you haven’t witnessed it in person, but the jewelry’s true significance is evident only in certain places.

 

'In Philly, it's all about lyrics,' says Meek. 'They don't care about hooks, beats—none of that. Mostly it's about lyrical ability and ways you can do things.'

 

To comprehend the power of these totems, you have to see an entire room’s energy shift, and feel the air sucked out by the sudden presence of a $65,000 watch or a pair of rose gold Cuban link chains. What does it mean to possess these items in a place where so many others have nothing, and no one can be trusted? It’s at moments like this, when the dreams and the nightmares intersect, that these artifacts have any meaning.

The tense, ominous silence of such rooms is a sound unknown to most, as are the feelings that drive Meek’s new record. Meek Mill’s purpose is his piercing delivery, his ability to cut through—charged by the realism he puts behind every word and the control he exerts over revelations of his personal history. His jewelry bears witness to the entirety of his journey, even though it receives little attention on Dreams & Nightmares. Apart from the album’s cover art—which juxtaposes handcuffs and a shiny Rolex—the trappings of success are pure subtext. On tracks like “Polos and Shell Tops,” Meek raps about the days when he would risk everything for extremely modest rewards.

“I ain't lose that connection yet,” says Meek, despite all that his MMG affiliation has brought. “I'm still hurt in my heart, when I go home I still go outside and be okay outside. I can still go around my way, so it ain't easy to lose.”

RELATED: The 50 Best Philadelphia Rap Songs