For years now, Meek Mill has expressed and stressed his all-consuming obsession with dreams. It’s his motif. There’s Dreams and Nightmares, his 2012 debut album. In 2015, he released Dreams Worth More Than Money, his best-selling album to date. Dreamchasers is the name of his team and also the title of his six-year-old mixtape series, the most recent volume being last year’s DC4. Meek’s latest album, Wins and Losses — out Friday — opens with a sample recording of a full-throated motivational speech that is, true to Meek Mill’s personal theme, all about dreams:
This is the rhetorical preoccupation of a man whose greatest fear is that he wakes up. In many ways, the 30-year-old Meek Mill is a man out of time. His lineage — the East Coast tough guy on the rise — is nearly extinct. Lil Uzi Vert, who appears on Meek’s tape, is the hottest young Philly rapper out right now, and his most notable musical influence is Marilyn Manson. Meek, who is eight years Uzi’s senior, is very clearly indebted to Beanie Sigel, 50 Cent, and DMX, all rappers whose music qualifies as hip-hop oldies now that we’re a decade deep into the genre’s post–Lil Wayne, post-AutoTune phase. So, Meek’s a mid-Atlantic street rapper in a decade dominated by trap warblers from Atlanta and Chicago, and a strange new wave of rap punks from South Florida and elsewhere. Worse yet, Meek is the unqualified loser of the decade’s biggest, most definitive rap beef. He is Nicki Minaj’s bitter ex-boyfriend. He’s the last bankable hope of a flagging vanity label, Maybach Music Group, which Rick Ross has struggled to hold together amid nasty internal conflict and a humiliating feud with Drake and the rest of Cash Money Records. These are just a few of Meek Mill’s critical disadvantages. The only way to see past all that is to close your eyes.
In July 2015, Meek picked a fateful fight with his erstwhile benefactor Drake over the merits of ghostwriting. It went poorly for Meek, who suffered a barrage of punch lines, memes, and general ridicule so overwhelming that it purged all traces and memory of his dis track against Drake from the internet. Meek’s feud with Drake underscored … well, it underscored many things about the musicians involved, and about the state of hip-hop generally, but most importantly it revealed the limits of Meek Mill’s musical imagination. It marked the tough guy’s obsolescence.
Drake aside, the fundamental struggle of Meek Mill’s career has been the need for him to match his loud, rushed, cataclysmic style of rapping to a more dynamic and captivating persona, bolstered by a more interesting musical style than he’d been working with. His once-favored producer, Jahlil Beats, used to equip him with brassy, triumphant melodies that signaled his all-American underdog status; but Meek has lately doubled down on dark, operatic themes that lend him a unique grandeur, such as on “Heavy Heart” and the album’s intro. “Heavy Heart,” one of this album’s many, lengthy rants, is pure Sigel, down to the choppy flows and solitary paranoia. It is Meek Mill’s dominant mode, and his most vivid perspective, but Wins and Losses also includes radio-populist, R&B nigga gestures, such as the luscious Tony! Toni! Toné! flip “Whatever You Need,” that sound far less canned and, frankly, quaint than the rapper’s previous attempts. On “We Ball,” which features Young Thug, Meek himself is doing a bit of a Young Thug impersonation. But, more importantly, there’s a much better song, “Fall Thru,” on which Meek tries his hand at Thugger-style trap balladeering all by himself.
Taken as a whole, Wins and Losses isn’t a total overhaul of Meek Mill’s musical signatures. It’s more like he’s pared his worst, gimmicky impulses in order to craft a distinct comfort zone in which he speaks a bit more loosely and is generally better at being himself. The neat trick with Wins and Losses is that Meek is no longer a traumatized underdog nor a sore loser, a slick and self-aware pain in the ass. He’s cheeky now, and it’s given his music a fresh edge. On “1942 Flows,” he slights his ex Nicki with vague insinuations about who left whom. On “Issues,” he trolls Nicki’s previous ex, the rapper Safaree, with a bit of trivia about how he and Nicki first met. There was a time when Meek couldn’t fashion such insults without sounding bitter and inadequate, such as his once rapping about a drunk friend of T.I. peeing on Drake at a movie screening years ago, but here he’s pulled himself together, stood up for himself, and then moved on to better song structures. Finally, he no longer raps like a man who suspects he’s a punch line.
So much of Meek’s best music is defined by righteous anger and survivor’s remorse. That is the fundamental beauty of gangster rap, street rap, whatever you want to call it — a hip-hop tradition that has fallen out of vogue, commercially, but that rappers from Philly to Chicago to Sacramento have kept alive and exciting by force of will. It’s why his fans were once obsessed with the vintage image of Meek, age 13, channeling Sigel and Cassidy in a street corner freestyle that plays like an audition for hip-hop stardom. You know that kid was dreaming furiously of success and all that comes with it, but you also know that he spent hours in front of a camera somewhere rehearsing those flows and that mean mug because he just fucking loved rap music. Once preoccupied with pointless drama, Meek Mill is once again possessed with the dream.