Dreams Worth More Than Money
A week after I moved to New York City in 2012 Meek Mill celebrated his new album, Dreams and Nightmares, with a release party at Electric Lady Studios. Jay Z and Will Smith came through, each departing before Meek, Wale, and Ross even arrived, having successfully fulfilled their obligations to make the listening session a capital-E Event. And indeed, the full breadth of New York's hip-hop media was in attendance to celebrate Meek's highly anticipated MMG debut. Dreams and Nightmares' title track, which would outlast its namesake to become a cult classic, set a powerful tone; as Meek Mill rapped along with his music, writers took to Twitter to hail the record. Twelve days later, Kendrick Lamar released good kid, m.A.A.d. city, and today, Dreams and Nightmares is widely remembered as an unofficial single with 13 b-sides trailing behind.
Flawed though it may be, Meek Mill's Dreams Worth More Than Money is a much more consistent, more substantial record than Meek's 2012 debut. No single song will be stitched as thoroughly to hip-hop's fabric as "Dreams and Nightmares," but the album is much more likely to remain in rotation. When it comes to songwriting, Meek plays it safe, sticking to what he knows without reaching; "Classic," a Bangladesh-produced highlight featuring Swizz Beatz and Jeremih, is the unconventional exception, a toddling piano plunked over a stoned breakbeat occasionally underlined by a baritone sax and Jeremih's low-key vocalizations. Pushed right up front at track two, it suggests confidence in the project's shape.
Meek is often spoken of as if he were an athlete rather than a rapper. His style implies calisthenics, tendons flexing, the measured breathing and regulated precision of a sprinter hitting the track. If the shaky performance of his debut was a wipeout—to mix a metaphor—Dreams Worth More Than Money sticks the landing, sustaining over its running time without stumbling and occasionally providing some thrilling moments. But ultimately he is an artist, not an athlete; to butcher the words of a former Philadelphian, what we're talking about through sports metaphors is practice, not product. This is a delivery system for emotional content, the flashes of truth and stark narrative power drawn from Meek's experience becoming a man in a hostile, violent world: "Forever label me felon, clutchin that pistol, God made me rebellious." It's not something he calls on automatically; it's finessed, in the words and in his investment and timing, an intuitive, chaotic performance of the self, which requires consonance of many moving parts to work effectively.
Consistency on this album comes in large part from his ability to catch these compelling moments on a regular basis, to veer personal rather than technical. It's part of why his collaboration with Future feels so powerful. Future has likewise built a much stronger base in the past six months by focusing on the dynamics of his own story, without letting it veer into cliche or caricature. Meek follows his lead on "Jump Out the Face," but there's no need to compromise his own vision to do so. Likewise, Drake collaboration "R.I.C.O." maintains the somber elegiac vision needed for Meek to sustain his own identity in another artist's musical world. The balance between variety, to hold attention, and contiguous tone, to grant it coherence, is sustained from front to back. The peaks and valleys never suggest an ebbing of energy, with the possible exception of cynical Chris Brown and Nicki collaboration "All Eyes on You," which finds Meek lazily quoting Biggie lyrics in the service of a play to radio. (The song is already being pushed that direction.)
There are records with single potential that don't flail quite so purposelessly; "Check" is already getting burn, a strong single that coasts on a runner's high. But the album's most powerful moments are, this time, also present in the album tracks; eerie records like "Ambitionz" suggest claustrophobia, conjoining terror and power into one dark mixture. The anticipation for Meek has been incredibly high for several years now, and anyone who expected the kind of broad vision needed to make an omnivorous, Life After Death-style statement of arrival may end up disappointed. But Meek's strength has always been depth, not breadth, a focus on the task before him rather than envisioning some grander future. Perhaps he's never had the choice; the album's cover art, which connects a stack of money to his father's funeral program, suggests his is a personal art, one that explores the trap between present and past. That a bold vision for the future can only be fantasy.
David Drake is a writer living in New York. Follow him @somanyshrimp.