Why Manchester is the new creative epicentre of neo-soul and hip-hop
This week Meek Mill released his long awaited debut ‘Dreams and Nightmares’, with the opening track of the same name setting the tone for a lean collection of explosive, emotive songs. On the whole ‘Dreams and Nightmares’ is a very good album, it’s got filler but the killer is strong enough to dismiss it, and it showcases what the very talented Meek is capable of. His story is one of rags to riches, and his personal mythology is marked by two key events: the death of his father during an armed robbery and the subsequent pressure it put on his young son, and an eight month prison sentence in 2008 that left him bitter and hungry for success.
Already a fixture in his home city with a popular series of ‘The Real Me’ and ‘Flamers’ mixtapes, he had a dalliance with T.I.‘s Grand Hustle imprint before Rick Ross’ Maybach Music Group snapped him up last year. Signing him was a good coup for Ross, as Meek’s high energy style helped to add a rough underbelly to his polished veneer on early singles like Ima Boss and Tupac Back. Ross’ style is a primer in restraint – heavy syllabic jabs delivered with controlled breaths with bulky punchlines – and even hyperactive goon Gunplay, the third of the label’s top trio, has bars you can tell he’s really hand-crafted and looks back on with pride. Meek composes all his work mumbling to himself around the studio and his off-the-hip style is all external, characterized by volleys of shouts and screams that hardly need to convince because the emotion is so apparent in the form.
Dreams and Nightmares is like two of his best attributes put into a single song, with the opening half resembling his heart-rending take on Drake’s The Ride released at the turn of the year before seamlessly switching up to an all-spraying attack with the best ever application of that ubiquitous Maybach Music drop. Meek Mill’s forthright approach means he often works with quick dichotomies – “I had to grind like that/to shine like this” – and what he lacks in obvious technical flourishes he makes up for in deceptively simple deviations. The transition from “hater rest in peace/ hater rest in peace, rest in peace to the parking lot” serves as a moment of calm in the first part of the song when the angry “You fuck around, you fuck around, you fuck around, get smoked!” does the polar opposite in the second. An impressive storyteller, he also has a knack for bald details like riding through a rival’s neigbourhood with his “bike on twelve o’clock” that gives everything he says a palpable sense of urgency and risk.
Meek Mill has a capacity to depict trauma on record that most other musicians – let alone typically guarded and often insecure rappers – lack, and Dreams and Nightmares is the door to an album that may seem bare on the surface but can be dramatically rich, evocative and intense. It ends with a curt “I’m gone”, like it was done in one breathless take and he literally couldn’t say anymore without completely losing it. The whole track is geared towards raw emotion and doesn’t flinch from its target an inch, making this song one of the most genuinely thrilling that will be produced this or any year.