After a three-year wave of success that featured number-one albums from Rick Ross (Deeper than Rap and Teflon Don), Wale’s successful reboot, Ambition, the eclectic but entertaining crew-rap compilation, Self Made Vol. 1, and Ross’ monster Rich Forever mixtape, Maybach Music Group has hit a rough patch.
The second Self Made installment, released last June, scored a minor hit with “Bag of Money” but didn’t leave a lasting impression. The album relied on Omarion to handle crooning duties (it did not turn out well), lacked memorable hooks, and the Lex Luger-lite production and half-hearted barks from Rozay did not cohere into anything worth multiple listens.
But Self Made Vol. 2 was merely the appetizer. The main course—the epic, gold-studded entree of the MMG empire—was Ross’ God Forgives, I Don’t, which he compared to, in no particular order, Doggystyle, Inglorious Basterds, Ready to Die, and Scorsese. God Forgives had its charms (the Andre 3000 jam “Sixteen,” “3 Kings” and “Amsterdam”) and its embarrassments (I get the willies from even typing “Diced Pineapples”), but overall it underwhelmed.
Ross followed that up with his most recent mixtape, The Black Bar Mitzvah, the cover of which features Ross’ fur-clad torso emerging from a golden Star of David. The cover is the best part of the mixtape, by a mile.
Let’s just say MMG, the so-called “untouchable empire,” looks mighty touchable, and the fate of the empire, at the moment, rests on the shoulders of Meek Mill.
Mill rapped his way from Philadelphia’s rap underground to Ross’ record label on the strength of his Flamers mixtapes. Since signing to Maybach in 2011, Mill has been on one hell of a run: He scored two smash records, “Tupac Back” and “Ima Boss,” on Self Made Vol. 1, and his most recent mixtape, Dreamchasers 2, notched 1.5 million downloads in its first six hours and crashed DatPiff.com—the hallmark of hip hop success in 2012.
“I did it without an album, I did shit with Mariah,” Mill declares over a soft piano twinkle in the intro to his debut album, Dreams and Nightmares, (out this week on MMG/Warner Bros. Records). And he’s right: Mill, more than anyone, exemplifies the oddity of today’s rap market, where well-produced, feature-heavy, free mixtapes push rappers into the Hot 100 years before they’ve released proper albums.
The debut rap album, the album proper, carries absurd pressure. Young MCs are constantly striving for something canonical, their very own Illmatic or Reasonable Doubt. The debut rap album must not be simply a collection of songs, it must tell a story and resonate for years to come.
In prerelease interviews, Mill has mentioned the “concept” of the album, which is thoroughly spelled out in the record’s title: There is duality in life, a good and a bad side to everything. This is not an earth-shattering declaration and, worse for Mill, Kendrick Lamar released an instant classic just last week (good kid, m.A.A.d. city) that covers similar thematic ground. The already-high bar was just nudged a bit higher.
The first track, the aforementioned titular intro, attempts to distill this dream/nightmare duality into a single track. The first minute-and-a-half features a pensive, major-key piano run while Mill waxes nostalgic about all the cars he’s bought and the positives that rap stardom has wrought.
At the 1:36 mark, the unmistakable “Maybach Music” tag drops, and the song drastically switches gears. Tone the Best Bully’s beat grows ominous at once, and here we have it: the Mill we’re used to, all bluster and bravado barking over the beat. As a rapper, Mill’s vocal range stretches from intense to buck wild. There’s not much nuance in his delivery.
After the forgettable “In God We Trust” comes “Young and Gettin’ It,” the first track from frequent Mill-collaborator Jahlil Beats (“Ima Boss” and “Burn”). The song, one of the album’s first two singles, features a half-awake Kirko Bangz and an Auto-Tuned Mill rapping over handclaps and sirens. Like so many recent MMG singles, the song never comes together and the hook grates.
“Traumatized,” the album’s fourth song, shows more restraint. Boi-1da’s drums hit hard when he wants them to, but he knows better than to let them overwhelm Mill’s story. Mill squeezes references to both Shawn Marion and Darius Miles into the four-minute ballad—a feat topped only by Ross’ hook on the next song, “Believe It,” where the boss manages both a Miley Cyrus and a Justin Bieber mention.
“Maybach Curtains,” which boasts features from Nas, Ross and John Legend, plays the part of mid-album epic adequately. It’s got some super-sexy saxophone, a Biggie callback from Mill (“birthdays was the worst days”) and a laid-back outro verse from Ross.
The seventh track, “Amen,” is the album’s best, which is unfortunate—it’s the only song on Dreams and Nightmares that Mill has already released. KeyWayne’s unstoppable keyboard line brings buoyancy that the album sorely misses: It’s the first whiff of something “upbeat” on Dreams. Mill brings his characteristic intensity to even this laidback summer jam, opening the track with “Bottle after bottle, drink until I overdose,” which, though not exactly what you want to hear at your next house party, is one hell of an opening line.
“Amen” features Jeremih and Drake, and the latter delivers one of his better verses of the past couple years. Freed up by the playful beat, Drake doesn’t need to pretend to be hard and can be his fun-loving Degrassi High self.
The remainder of the album has its highlights—“Young Kings” is another standout, and Mary J. Blige shows up for “Who You’re Around,” which is at least notable—but it gets weighed down by the dependence on minor-key dirges and Mill’s repetitive lyrics. After “Amen,” Mill just doesn’t seem to be having any fun.
You would be forgiven if, like this listener, you threw on “House Party” as soon as getting through Dreams and Nightmares. Mill can kill a single, but hearing him slog through nearly an hour of doom and gloom made me want to mix him a drink and tell him to just chill out for a minute. He’s supposed to be living the dream, too, right?