No achievement in rap is more romanticized than the classic debut, and for good reason. Rappers only get one shot at making one, after all, and the few who do join the elite company of many of the genre’s all-time greats. What artist wouldn’t dream of ensuring his legacy in one swift shot? In the age of mixtapes that play like albums, though, “debut” has become an obsolete distinction. Meek Mill’s Dreams And Nightmares may technically be the first album from Rick Ross’ most gifted signee, but it’s also the latest addition to an already distinguished discography that includes prominent appearances on two top-selling Maybach Music Group compilations and a pair of big-budget mixtapes loaded with major radio hits. It’s a pseudo-debut, then, tasked with introducing an artist that almost anybody listening is already familiar with, a tedious responsibility it carries out using all manner of default rap-debut conventions: sweeping themes, back-in-the-day reflections, big-picture takeaways, and an overarching sense of self-importance. Everything is executed competently enough, but the album’s stuffy backward focus hardly complements an excitable rapper whose best work comes from rapping in the here and now.
“I remember nights I used to sell rock / posted on the corner like a mailbox,” Meek Mill reminisces on “Polo & Shell Tops,” one the album’s myriad ruminations on his corner-boy-to-rap-star rise. It’s a story that’s been told many, many times by other rappers, and though Meek Mill’s variation includes some dramatic ripples—his father was murdered when he was young, and on the record’s darkest song, “Traumatized,” he fantasizes about taking revenge on the man responsible—he rarely feels as vested in his autobiography as he was in the frenzied crime fables of his Dreamchasers mixtapes. Whether because of the sober subject matter or the restrained production, which dials back the assaultive pandemonium of his mixtapes for a softer template of tinkling pianos and contemplative soul, Meek Mill never seems to be having much fun. His flow has lost some of its spring, his wordplay some of its zip. Sober to a fault, Dreams And Nightmares is the respectable debut he felt obligated to make, not the enthralling album he’s already proved himself capable of making.