Meek Mill raps as if he is typing in all caps: “I’M BRINGING TUPAC BACK! TUPAC BACK!” He tends to, if not necessarily screech at the top of his lungs, then at least yell loud enough to project an appealing bellicosity. He’s not the first MC with a high-octane delivery — the underrated Ace Hood comes to mind, as well as Freeway, another Philadelphia rapper. And on past singles like “Tupac Back,” “Ima Boss,” and more recently, “Actin’ Up” (with its guilty-pleasure chorus “These bitches be actin’ up / And these niggas be lettin’ ’em”), those shouted raps are aggressively uninhibited, the vocal equivalent of throwing bows.
He also happens to be a competent lyricist, and it’s that talent, not his loudmouth voice or would-be rap hits, that proves his saving grace on Dreams and Nightmares. Frankly, listening to someone yell for an hour can get really fucking annoying. And despite plenty of practice as a contributor to Rick Ross’ Maybach Music Group compilation series Self Made, Meek’s label debut lacks viable singles, at least until radio or “MTV Jams” jams one of them into our brains via relentless airplay. Kirko Bangz hijacks “Young & Gettin’ It” with his second-rate Drake imitation; “Amen,” wherein Meek uncharacteristically lowers his tone a few octaves over Key Wane and Jahlil Beats’ mock-gospel piano, came out in the spring. It’s a good song, but it reads like old news here.
A better calling card is “Tony’s Story, Pt. 2,” a sequel to a track from his 2011 mixtape Dreamchasers, clearly inspired by Tony Montana, Tony Soprano, and, hell, Capone-N-Noreaga’s “T.O.N.Y.,” though Meek enlivens this clichéd gangsta drama with breathless details as Boi-1da drapes the entire track with the sounds of windshield wipers flicking off rain, creating the impression of a car hurtling through a stormy night. It’s an impressive effect. That producer also handles Dreams‘ other standout, “Traumatized,” on which Meek memorializes his friends and family members who have died from gun violence: “I was only a toddler, you left me traumatized / You made me man of the house and it was grinding time / So I’ma let this flame hit you just to let this pain hit you,” he raps during a mock conversation with his father’s murderer.
On “Young Kings,” he adds, “Ever since my dad died I ran out of fear ….Nigga, fuck fame!” But he still has bills to pay. That means letting Rick Ross belly-flop over “Believe It” and drop unintelligible metaphors like “I got that Justin Bieber.” It means Mary J. Blige, decades removed from her Bronx princess days, wailing the chorus to “Who Your Around.” And it also means Ross, Nas, and John Legend intoning portentously on “Maybach Curtains.” To his credit, it’s Meek’s searing voice that burns brightest, not those unnecessary cameos or his hobbled attempts at pillow-humping urban pop like “Rich & Famous” or “Lay Up.”
But what if Meek Mill made explicit the connections between his trauma over the loss of loved ones and the phantasms he seeks revenge against, the ones that eventually inhabit and overtake him, compelling him to sell crack for “Polos & Shell Tops?” It’s a theme that goes frustratingly unrealized here. Meek may plumb his Nightmares to project and enrich his street authenticity, but the real goal seems to be to live the Dreams of luxury-rap riches and bitches galore. Nice work if you can get it.