Probably the most anticipated release from Philly’s hip-hop scene this year, Dreams and Nightmares – the major-label debut full-length from North Philly rapper Meek Mill- hit stores today. Leading up to its release, Meek described the record to reporters as a journey, a story of his life to date, and you really feel that listening. Unlike the two Dreamchasers mixtapes that gained him mainstream popularity (not to mention the half-dozen other underground mixtapes that preceded them), this isn’t simply a celebration of a young man achieving his aspirations. Those collections touched on the struggle and the path Meek took, but were mostly empowering tales of going it your own, a rapper as a self-made success. This album gives equal time to the flipside, the hardships and dangers, the nightmares that its title alludes to.
You hear contrast that in the opening title track. The first half of the song is dramatic, melodic and orchestral, Meek on top of the world, surveying the scene, reflecting on success – which is far from braggadocio, as he has in fact amassed millions of fans, toured the world and worked his with peers and idols in hiphop, all on the strength of self-released mixtapes and online buzz. But at a minute 37, the song changes tones to a bass-heavy, ominous minor-key electro-breakdown to look at the scene from another angle. These aren’t frivolous thinks that keeps Meek grinding – “I gotta make it back home ’cause my mom needs that bill money, my son needs some milk.”
“In God We Trust” is even more blunt, intense and unsettling. Most people listening, Meek says at the start, “wouldn’t last a week in my hood in you were broke. And you wouldn’t last a day if you had money.” Lyrics across the record discuss urban violence – not glorifying it, but looking at the motivations and ramifications. ”Traumatized” is a moving number where Meek talks about his late father, how his death by a gunshot at age five forced him into a man-of-the-house role at too young an age – and to cap it, he directly calls out the person who pulled the trigger.
It can be simultaneously hard to listen to and hard not to listen – back to “In God We Trust,” the music is hypnotic, Meek’s delivery is commanding, and then we hit the moral: if you’re in school, stay in school. If you have a job, stay at work. If you’re a family man, stay with your family. Because you can’t hang in the fray. Again, this could come off like braggart bluster, but it’s not – you probably can’t, nor would you want to.
But what makes this record significant is the way it balances an unflinching reflection of harsh realities with celebratory club bangers, ultra-catchy anthems. After the hard-hitting opening punch, the dubsteppy “Young and Gettin’ It” lightens the mood with bass drops and autotune. A couple more moments on the nightmares side, and then its the infectious Nas collaboration “Maybach Curtains,” followed by the lusty and controversial (but undeniably winning) hit “Amen.”
Meek knows how to tell his story, get his message across, and do it in a way that will appear to broad swatches of listeners, from the hometown crowd – the kids in Philly bumping its jams out of their car stereos – to the global listeners, and even discerning, New Yorker-reading hip-hop aficionados who criticize Dreams and Nightmares for being “too conventional” but acknowledge that it’s still pretty impressive. Two words for those who maybe wanted this record to be more unconventional: Death Grips. Innovation is overrated if it doesn’t connect or at least sound good, and Meek’s conventionality, if that’s what you want to call it, sounds like a mil.