[30 October 2012]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Maybach Music Group works curiously backwards. Head honcho Rick Ross has become, as he claimed he would, a don in today’s hip-hop world, an untouchable hit and tastemaker that has assembled a popular stable of rappers, himself included. But for a group of rappers that want to be “rich forever”, they often give their best work away free. Rick Ross’s Rich Forever was a mixtape that doubled as his far-and-away best full-length. Wale had a decent sophomore record in Ambition, but the Eleven One Eleven Theory tape was far better. And then you’ve got Meek Mill, the most curious and unknown rapper of the bunch, which isn’t to say he hasn’t been busy. Mill has given us two great mixtapes, Dreamchasers and Dreamchasers 2, that prove he is as smooth a rapper as there is working today. He’s got the immediate fire of Ross’s carefully regimented rhymes and the intricate flow of Wale’s tricky wordplay, but he manages to sound like neither of his MMG partners.
But if this year’s Dreamchaser 2 showed Meek Mill at the top of his game, Dreams and Nightmares tells a story more about MMG than Mill himself. It’s another safe full-length from the group, the kind of thing that will sell copies but stifles the charm and creativity of the rapper in the spotlight. There are moments of greatness from Mill here, and as a whole it is a well-built record. But it also feels professional in all the coldest ways. It’s a record that proves MMG a conglomerate, a very direct money-making machine, rather than making money through creativity.
So it’s no real surprise that Meek Mill spends a lot of time yelling on this record. In fact, the whole record feels ham-handedly strident. It seems necessary for Mill, a guy trying hard to make a name for himself even as he is charged with building the MMG brand at every turn – yes, we do get the woman saying “Maybach Music” tagline more than once here. Sometimes his shouting is a brilliant turn, as with the on-fire opener “(Intro) Dreams and Nightmares”. The song builds its anger, and Meek Mill spits long verses, line after blistering line, and you know right away that Mill is, at least here, trying to bring his A-game, separating himself from any laid-back, half-assed rapping with some true skill. Later in the record, Mill screams out the gunplay anxiety of “Tony Story Pt. 2” and the effect is brilliant. No one since Ghostface has so perfectly undercut the uber-masculine image of gunplay with the very real fear of death underneath. The best moments of Dreams and Nightmares are the ones that tell us about Mill himself, whether it’s the nostalgia of young crime and hood cred on “Polo and Shell Tops” or the deep loss and regret of “Traumatized”. These moments give us unique insight, and let Mill turn his clever wordplay towards telling his own story. They also often come with, say, the soulful sampling of the beat on “Traumatized” that shifts away from the MMG-approved, blustery, horror-flick piano runs and banging bass on most of these – and Rick Ross’s, and Wale’s – beats.
But much of the rest of Mill’s yelling, or strident rapping high in the mix, sounds like him trying to simply be heard over the machinations of Maybach Music. Those overdone beats, Rick Ross’s ever-present persona. The boss here – Ross is “the captain,” according to Mill, who is merely a “lieutenant” – inserts himself into this record all over the place, including three decent but undercooked verses. We also see Wale on “Lay Up” and his transformation from thoughtful, socially conscious rapper to flossing ladies’ man has never sounded so awkward. In fact, the whole idea of a sex jam feels plugged in on Mill’s record, a song created to target a demographic. And besides, Hall & Oates nailed the basketball metaphor decades ago with “One on One”.
The album is full of those kinds of safe choices. “Amen” would be a revelation here if it hadn’t already been introduced to us on Dreamchasers 2. There’s a song called “Young and Getting It” and a song called “Young Kings” and you’re bound to get ear fatigue hearing, over and over again, about getting money and, more vaguely, about the pressure – or strength – to sell drugs. Mill himself gets caught up in these safe steps at times, like when he phones in a reworking of Notorious B.I.G.‘s “Juicy” on “Maybach Curtains” (though Nas bails him out with a great verse). He also sometimes goes for the easy punchline (“running shit, diarrhea”) instead of the carefully built, intricate lines he does so well.
This is all to say that Dreams and Nightmares is an album worth bumping loudly. It’s got an immediate impact and the rapping is solid throughout, and sometimes brilliant. But it’s also a hugely frustrating record, one that should introduce us to one of the finest, undersold rappers going, but instead is built to reinforce the MMG empire mythology. They want to be rich forever – and Mill spits the company line, by the way, saying he wants to get money and “fuck fame” – and it turns out they will do that, or continue to do that, by making records that feel more like safe business moves than bursts of creativity. These are excellent rappers, fascinating storytellers to a person, and they do let that come through sometimes. But their commercial releases feel all too commercial, and Meek Mill has, unfortunately, produced an album with flashes of brilliance that too often gets caught up in that same cycle. In focusing on the company line more than the striking talent and affecting heart of Meek Mill’s rap tales, Dreams and Nightmares is a missed opportunity. It’s good, but coldly so, and could have been so much more.