Meek Mill loves the rap game. In 2016, that’s rare enough to feel remarkable: Where previous generations found a guiding light in the genre’s unwritten rules, today’s rappers prefer to proclaim themselves rock stars, ink clothing deals with Urban Outfitters, and above all keep their social media followings happy. Things have changed since Meek Mill came up battle-rapping in Philadelphia and putting his nose to the mixtape grind since he was a teenager. Even a contemporary rapper like 21 Savage, whose persona exudes gangster toughness, has modeled clothes for Virgil Abloh’s high-end streetwear brand Off-White; this generation understands that rap can only get one so far. Meek Mill — to his credit, and just as often his detriment — seems uninterested in keeping up with the kids.
Last week, the Philadelphia rapper released DC4, the latest installment of his Dreamchasers mixtape series, which started back in 2011. The tape comes in the wake of public feuds with Los Angeles rapper The Game and Philadelphia rap legend Beanie Sigel, and it remains in the year-long shadow of his Drake beef. Thankfully, Meek avoids tussling with petty gossip on DC4. After endless headlines related to his various squabbles with other musicians, he's learned not to feed into that tabloid ecosystem. Meek skips narcissistic self-pity, focusing instead on issues of street violence, police brutality, and the thin lines of friendship. “They building more jails, I'm warning niggas, shots fire / Mama crying, traumatizing, they mourning niggas / Them cops killing us like it’s war with niggas, it’s on with niggas,” he passionately raps on “Shine.” He talks about these issues like they’re not hashtags in his Twitter timeline, but a day-to-day reality.
DC4’s first half is full of Meek’s trademark intensity — nearly every line carries the full weight of his soul. “Niggas want me gone, but I’m still alive / Wake up every morning feeling blessed up / Pull up in that holy Ghost, ’cause I’m blessed up,” he raps on “Blessed Up,” reflecting back on just how far he’s come. Wonderment fills the space here, more than in Meek’s earlier work. His 2012 major-label debut album, Dreams and Nightmares, battled with paranoia about his long-struggled-for success disappearing, but on DC4 he finally sounds at ease. On “Lights Out,” matched with Don Q, a young Bronx rapper, he trades lines with a freedom that recalls Meek’s pre-Dreamchasers days. The comfortable tone allows lines like “Most of these niggas is frauds / They not who they say that they are / Niggas do it for the internet / But we really, really ain’t into that” to roll off without sounding like a hard dis, even if the words have an obvious Canadian target.
DC4 feels like Meek is reaching the zenith of the desires he set out years ago. On “Get Dis Money,” from the original 2011 Dreamchasers tape, there was an eagerness to Meek’s words, as he was just starting to see the real rewards for his years of rapping. Now he has what he wanted: “Fuck a deposit, I bury the money / It hang out my pocket, embarrassing money / I act like I ain’t used to having this money,” he says on “Litty,” and longtime fans will hear that Meek’s dreams are no longer being chased — they’ve been caught. Somewhere on a dusty YouTube server, you can still find videos of a teenaged Meek Mill on street corners rapping with the same tenacity, energy, and eye for detail that’s carried him throughout his career. The nappy-braided kid on DC4’s cover, even in his wildest dreams, couldn’t have seen the places he’d go.
Over the last year, Meek Mill has struggled to find the right path forward in his career. Putting out a project like DC4 that reinforces his core strengths without getting bogged down in side issues is the wise choice, but it can’t have been an easy one when there’s so much drama wherever he turns. Even his relationship with Nicki Minaj has become a subject for debate, as gossip sites and commenters suggest that he’s not good enough for her, implicitly stating that this street rapper doesn’t deserve to be with a pop A-lister. A similar class divide played out in his beef with Drake: Any rivalry that pits a major black pop star against a black rapper will ultimately skew toward the person more adept at code-switching, which is a realm where Drake is truly unmatched. Even Meek’s rapping voice — one that can deliver the emotionally devastating lines “They murdered my dad and converted me to menace / So when they come serve me my sentence / I bet I won’t tell them a word of my business / I’ll rot in that cell till they burn me, my nigga” from “2 Wrongs” — can appear too assertive to some listeners. If Meek is seen as too weak in the face of beef, but too loud on record, it’s hard to see what role he has in these spaces. Meek’s entire career is built on rapping about institutions that work against black lives, and the world of celebrity itself is just one more. Give him credit for knuckling down in the face of those pressures and allowing DC4 to be a standout among his best work.