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Meek Mill: Better Than Jay Z?

Meek Mill is bigger now than ever, and unafraid to publicly acknowledge it. Is the Philly rapper out of his mind? Maybe not.

Image by Alex Cook

Meek Mill pulled off the highly improbable this summer and made a follow up to his debut album Dreams & Nightmares that trounces it in quality and, it would appear, sales. At various points in the three-year run up to the release of last month’s Dreams Worth More Than Money, this seemed impossible. As legal woes cropped up around a pre-fame drug and gun possession case, Meek found his parole revoked just weeks before the album’s summer 2014 release date. Not long after, the Maybach Music Group machine hit turbulence on Rick Ross’s not-well-received Hood Billionaire. Both Meek and his album hung in limbo, his commercial cachet suddenly, dizzyingly in question.


Fresh off an early release in December, Meek hit the ground running (literally), reigniting his buzz on a string of increasingly sharp freestyles and a highly publicized relationship with Nicki Minaj. He’s bigger now than ever before, and unafraid to acknowledge it. In an interview with Ego Trip and Respect magazine cofounder Elliott Wilson, the album’s respectable 216k first week sales came up, and Meek casually noted that at Jay Z’s height of fame, Nelly and Ja Rule sold more records, as if to suggest that like Jay, he intends to outlast many of the rappers selling more records than he does now. On Dreams Worth More Than Money’s “Stand Up” he doesn’t just want to match Jay, he’s sure he’s already better: “Who ever thought lil old Meek Milly would pass Jigga? / I’m just trying to think bigger.” Is he out of his mind?

At his peak Jay Z funneled the hustle and bustle of Brooklyn street life into music that was both catchy and relatable, braiding hard truth, technical excellence and commercial accessibility into versatile records you could blast out of a Jeep on the block or the sound system at a nightclub. His mid-90s transition from highly respected street rapper to ubiquitous radio juggernaut is certainly of interest to Meek Mill, who has walked a similar path since drawing national attention with his 2010 mixtape Mr. Philadelphia. Stand in the middle of a crowd losing it to every word of the laser-focused rag-to-riches smash “Dreams and Nightmares Intro” and it becomes explicitly clear that Meek means to a new generation of rap fans what Jay meant to the last. Thing is, Meek didn’t say he’s a new Jay, he said he’s better. Let’s crunch stats.


To be Jay Z now you had to be Jay Z then. In 2015 we know Shawn Carter as a wheeling, dealing “business, man” who can get a cell phone manufacturer to gift customers a million copies of his new album, convince the Recording Industry Association of America to still award it a platinum certification, and then go home to the incomparable Beyoncé at night’s end. But he wasn’t always that. Jay’s early years as a solo recording artist were a battle. It goes without saying that Meek Mill is the better rapper right this very second, so in fairness, let’s go back in time. Line up the years between Jay’s first two albums to those between Meek’s, and adjust for the proper inflation, and the Philly kid’s remarks don’t seem so unsound.

Continued below.

Jay’s got the edge in the first year, as Dreams & Nightmares couldn’t dare see Reasonable Doubt from a qualitative or technical standpoint. But more people heard the Meek album in its lifetime. Jay’s debut album Reasonable Doubt is widely regarded as a hip-hop classic, but like Nas’s Illmatic, it struggled to find its audience at first pass. It crept to gold sales in its first few months out in 1996, a respectable haul until you compare it to the other breakout New York area rap releases of the same year—Nas’s It Was Written and the Fugees’ The Score, for instance—which leapfrogged Doubt to multi-platinum sales in a comparable amount of time. Meek’s album one singles, the Drake featured “Amen” and the Kirko Bangz collab “Young and Getting It,” charted just as well as Jay’s “Can’t Knock the Hustle” and “Dead Presidents/Ain’t No Nigga” double A-side, give or take a few Hot 100 spots, but Meek matching Jay from an era where cassingles are a joke of the distant past, and more people steal music than buy it is technically a victory.


After year one, things get muddy. A year after Nightmares, Meek released Dreamchasers 3, a solid entry in his mixtape canon that, while it doesn’t have an analog in Jay’s catalog at the time, succeeded in warming his buzz in an otherwise off year. Jay doesn’t take any years off between his first two, though. He reacts to Doubt’s slow commercial turnout with In My Lifetime, Vol. 1, a self-consciously slick stylistic about-face that questionably traded Doubt’s boom bap architects Ski Beatz and Clark Kent for Puff’s Hitmen. He’d get the payday he was looking for, but at the cost of a measure of the first album’s acclaim. (Jay Z doesn’t become JAY Z until 1998’s triple-platinum Vol. 2: Hard Knock Life and 2001’s The Blueprint, when new fans would finally circle back to the first album to push it past a million copies sold.) The consensus on Jay’s second outing is that it didn’t match the first, but Meek’s follow up is a confident improvement.

The earnest, unpretentious storytelling of Dreams Worth More Than Money gems like “The Trillest” and “Cold Hearted” is formidable if less refined than In My Lifetime, Vol. 1’s “Imaginary Player,” “Friend or Foe ‘98” and the like, but unlike Jay’s album, Meek’s engages the radio without ever losing itself. The Weeknd collab “Pulling Up” and the Nicki Minaj and Chris Brown team-up “All Eyes on You” invite bigger stars into the fold for poppier tracks, but Meek remains grounded, and his collaborators, sharp. By contrast, In My Lifetime, Vol. 1’s pop gestures—“City Is Mine” and its drab Blackstreet-sings-Glenn-Frey hook, “Sunshine,” one of the worst uses of Kraftwerk ever in rap, and the laughably ill-conceived, Puff and Lil Kim assisted “I Know What Girls Like”—often come up in conversations about the worst Jay Z songs of all time. There are a grip of individual songs on the Jay album that trounce many in Meek’s catalogue (“You Must Love Me,” “Where I’m From”), but as a unified statement, Dreams is solid and assured, where Lifetime is nervous and pandering.

Jay Z set the rhythm for the remainder of his rap career on those first two albums. Every brash action gets a jerky, perpendicular reaction; every Blueprint gets its Blueprint 2, every Black Album, a Kingdom Come. One hopes Meek’s subtle refinement from Nightmares to Dreams will also be the path for his. As for who’s the best, there are moments in Jay’s ‘96-’97 run that are unrepeatable but also glaring shortcomings and missteps that Meek’s ‘12-’15 doesn’t make. Jay would sail on to pop superstardom in the years that followed, and his artistic and entrepreneurial accomplishments are inimitable. This also means they taint the way we discuss his early years. For a time, he was just another one of a dozen rap stars teetering on the brink of greatness and lasting renown. He’s not infallible then or now. What he did can be done again, and Meek is not out of line for feeling like he’s already well on the way.

Craig Jenkins is a contributing editor at Noisey. Follow him on Twitter.