*** (out of four)
In the first verse on his debut album “Dreams and Nightmares,” Meek Mill notes that he “did it without an album.” Indeed, by one measurement Meek Mill is the most successful rapper currently working: His “Dreamchasers 2” mixtape, released earlier this year, holds the record for the most downloads ever from free mixtape site Datpiff at well over 3 million.
By all traditional metrics, Meek Mill is a pure genre artist with relatively little crossover appeal. Millions of free downloads notwithstanding, the bottom line is “Dreams and Nightmares” will reach fewer people and arguably deliver less hit material (its great lead single, “Amen,” was already on “Dreamchasers 2”), making it potentially easy to overlook.
In a year that's already seen, in addition to “Dreamchasers 2,” a group album from Meek Mill's label, the Rick Ross-helmed Maybach Music Group, as well as two Rick Ross mixtapes and one Rick Ross album, one might question the need for “Dreams and Nightmares.” Songs like the lush, feature-heavy “Maybach Curtains” and “Lay Up,” while good, are MMG boilerplate by now; there have probably been two dozen tracks this year that convey the same basic mood and message with a similar cast of performers.
Nonetheless, while little on “Dreams and Nightmares” makes an effort to distinguish itself conceptually as a landmark work – it goes so far as to include the sequel to a story rap from “Dreamchasers” – Meek Mill's talent is singular. Despite Ross's efforts to make Meek in his own image, Meek Mill is, at heart, a fairly classic rapper, a gifted storyteller with an eye for detail in the vein of Ghostface Killah or Beanie Sigel. His evocative portrayals of violence and jail time on songs like "Polo and Shell Tops" or "In God We Trust" give life and humanity to rarely discussed realities.
Although it's unlikely that “Dreams and Nightmares” will end up as one of the most memorable parts of Meek Mill's career, plenty of what it has to say should leave an unforgettable imprint.
Kyle Kramer is a RedEye special contributor. @redeyechimusic
Want more? Discuss this article and others on RedEye's Facebook page.