Photo by Justin Staple/Noisey
Philadelphia rapper Meek Mill, born Robert Rahmeek Williams, released his second major label album, Dreams Worth More Than Money, at midnight last night, just a few days after announcing its long delayed release date. And like 2012’s Dreams And Nightmares, which featured a vivid illustration of an expensive watch connected to handcuffs, the cover of his new album has a powerfully symbolic visual: a stack of $100 bills juxtaposed with what appears to be a church program for the funeral of the rapper’s father, who was murdered when Williams was five years old.
Meek Mill’s discography is packed with sharp contrasts between the comforts of hard earned wealth and the hunger and struggle of his life before Rick Ross’s Maybach Music Group brought him rap stardom. Dreams Worth More Than Money might have been a more typically self-congratulatory, materialistic MMG affair had it been released on its originally announced date last year. But when Meek’s probation was revoked, he spent the second half of 2014 in jail, and he started the album over from scratch after getting home. On the bombastic Mozart-sampling opener “Lord Knows,” he seems almost thankful for the chance to reboot the project before it was released: “Shout out that judge that denied me my bail, it made me smarter, it made me go harder.”
The big make-or-break job that Dreams Worth More Than Money is charged with is to be the event album it feels like Meek Mill should have already had by now. The Billboard numbers for his official releases have never quite caught up with the excitement generated among fans and peers by his mixtapes and club hits. 2012’s Dreamchasers 2 broke records on the mixtape site DatPiff. But when his major label debut Dreams and Nightmares was released less than six months later, all those free downloads didn’t translate into impressive sales. The album was released a week after Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d city and ultimately sold about a quarter as much. Meek Mill hasn’t released a mixtape in nearly two years, perhaps wary of once again letting it overshadow the official album.
After Dreams and Nightmares got a middling public reception, its epic title track took on a life of its own. Years after its release, everyone from Drake to Just Blaze has expressed reverence for a deep cut from an album that was largely regarded as a commercial disappointment. It’s because of this kind of love that Dreams Worth More Than Money is one of the most anticipated albums of 2015, that Meek's still informally classed among rappers who have far more radio hits, that fans hold out hope for the gold and platinum plaques he’s yet to earn.
Nothing on Dreams Worth More Than Money is as arrestingly perfect as “Dreams and Nightmares,” least of all the opening track “Lord Knows,” one of its weaker songs. But as an album it holds together far better than Meek’s debut, thanks mostly to brisk pacing. Several songs on Dreams Worth More Than Money run three minutes or shorter, and many abruptly transition into the next track at a moment when you’re expecting another chorus, another guest verse, or a long fadeout. Meek Mill’s voice has always been one of the loudest, most passionate voices in mainstream rap, and for once he’s made a project which teems with the same urgency as his verses.
The long-forgotten 2014 singles that kicked off the album campaign, “I Don’t Know” and “Off The Corner,” are unsurprisingly not on Dreams Worth More Than Money. But the more popular 2015 singles “Monster” and “B Boy” aren’t present either, not even as bonus tracks. The only previously released song on the album, “Check,” dropped less than a month ago. “Monster” in particular would have been a welcome inclusion. Without it, Dreams is notably lacking in contributions from Jahlil Beats, the Philadelphia producer who’s been responsible for some of Meek’s best known songs and a recent top ten hit for Bobby Shmurda.
Without Jahlil providing Meek Mill’s signature sound, Dreams Worth More Than Money follows more than it leads from a production standpoint. Metro Boomin and Southside provide tracks that could’ve been on Future’s recent mixtapes, and Vinylz and Boi-1da’s productions could’ve appeared on Drake’s latest. Still, Meek Mill is too confident in his own voice and perspective to mimic his peers’ flows or try to rewrite their hits. And a few songs like “Classic” and “The Trillest” don’t sound quite like anything else that Meek’s contemporaries would be able to pull off half as well. A$AP Rocky gets a lot of credit for combining a classic East Coast sensibility with sounds from other regions, but Meek Mill has spent his career accomplishing the same thing in a less showy but more effective fashion.
Other than the five months he spent in jail, the biggest defining event of the last year of Meek Mill’s life is a blossoming relationship with Nicki Minaj. At times on the album, he beams with happiness about the relationship (“Today I woke up with my dream girl, she rich as a Beatle”). A couple hours before Dreams was released, the couple known as Omeeka presided over the BET Awards like the king and queen of the prom, booed up in the audience, and onstage performing one of their two collaborations on the album, “All Eyes On You.”
Meek and Nicki collaborated several times before their relationship was confirmed, on her The Pinkprint and his Dreamchasers 3, and those songs often crackled with what we now know is not just musical chemistry. On Dreams Worth More Than Money, however, their duets follow the blandly earnest formula of Nicki Minaj’s past relationship songs. As a coming out party for a power couple, these songs are more “’03 Bonnie & Clyde” than “Crazy In Love.” Two of the most exciting rappers of their generation are in love, and perhaps we should just be happy for them that their relationship is blissful enough to produce boring music. “All Eyes On You,” which also features a Chris Brown hook, will probably be the biggest radio hit of Meek’s career, and he’s spending the summer as an opening act on his girlfriend’s tour. But Meek Mill is too big of a star in his own right to merely ride Minaj’s coattails, and hopefully this publicity bump will benefit an otherwise fairly uncompromising, hard-edged album.
Meek Mill is consistently inconsistent – none of his projects are stellar from front to back, but all of them feature at least a few of the best rap songs anyone is making at the moment. Dreams Worth More Than Money is no exception, but thanks to its relentless pacing, it flows better than previous efforts. Occasionally he lets out a groaner like “heart of a lion, hungry as hippo,” and the last two tracks feature Meek rapping unpleasantly in Auto-Tune. But there are several songs that should power the next couple years of his career just as effectively as “I’m A Boss” and “Levels” have in the past.
Perhaps the most obvious influence on Meek Mill is the hometown heroes he grew up on, and frequently collaborates with, from the State Property crew. Over a decade ago, Beanie Sigel and Freeway made passionate and fairly uncommercial street rap for Roc-A-Fella that seemed to mean more to their boss, Jay-Z, than the record buying public. And at times it has seemed like Meek plays that role within MMG, the Philly street cred guy who gets respect while Rick Ross and Wale get all the radio spins. But he’s also often shown the potential to be something much bigger. A few months ago, Nicki Minaj likened Meek to DMX, declaring “We always need that type of guy” in hip-hop. And just as DMX was an aggressive outlier the jiggy era of late 90s rap, in 2015 Meek Mill serves as a welcome contrast to the milder likes of J. Cole and Big Sean. This is the moment where we find out if he’s going to go down in history as a valued sidekick like Beanie Sigel, or a consequential star in his own right like DMX.
Al Shipley is a writer living in Baltimore. Follow him on Twitter.