Hey y’all. My name is Jordan Sowunmi. You may remember me from writing the Hollywood Humpday Highlights here on PremierLife. Or not. Regardless, I’m going to be writing a weekly rap column for Premier Life, starting this week. I’ll start by profiling an artist and end with three grab-bag song recommendations. Sound good? Good. Let’s get started.
Meek Mill: 2012′s Street Rap Crossover Star?
In 2009 and 2010, Lil’ Wayne leveraged his pop superstardom by frequently performing alongside protégés Drake and Nicki Minaj, helping them garner mainstream attention while simultaneously turning his vanity label into one of the most dominant brands in popular music in (it remains to be seen if his decisions to reinvestigate the good/comfortably repressed parts of the early aughts by signing Busta Rhymes, Christina Milian and Limp Bizkit [?!?!?!] will hurt any of that). In 2011, Rick Ross emulated this concept by pulling a full-scale “Holmes on Homes” renovation of the broken-down house that was Wale’s career, and introducing the world to one of rap’s most exciting new stars – a 24-year-old North Philly native named Meek Mill.
Now, if you’re the type of rap fan that watches underground street DVDs or street freestyle battles, Meek Mill may not exactly be a new face to you. There are videos of a 13-year-old (!) Meek Millz on the streets of Philadelphia rapping with the same trademark aggression and unhinged lunacy that makes him so exciting to watch right now. What’s particularly jarring about the videos (other than Mill’s braids!) is the detail, precision, and confidence present in style and rhymes. This is the kind of fully-formed preternatural rap talent that is extremely rare, particularly in this brand of hard-edged street rap.
Over the next eight years, Mill steadily built a local buzz by honing his craft, releasing a series of well-received mixtapes, and performing frequently. By 2008, his consistency and local grinding paid off when he drew the attention of Charlie Mack - a local producer/promoter and business partner of fellow Philly native and Hollywood megastar, Will Smith – who signed on to manage the thriving rapper. This led to a meeting with T.I., who quickly signed him to his Grand Hustle imprint. Unbeknownst to Charlie Mack and Tip, Mill was still in the process of dealing with criminal gun possession charges. Before the red-ink on his deal with Grand Hustle could dry, Meek was sentenced to a year in jail. His timing couldn’t have been worse. T.I. was dealing with felony weapon charges of his own, which severely hampered his ability to guide Meek’s career, eventually leading to the dissolution of their business relationship. “After my two hiatuses, I was put in a position where I couldn’t really make moves on Meek as quick as he may have wanted to,” Tip told Billboard.com’s Erika Ramirez. “I [have] never been one to hold anyone back or to slow down the success of anybody. I’m the first to try and enhance what you have, and if I can’t make it better then I shouldn’t be a part of it.”
Mill’s sentence in the bing seemed to energize him creatively. Despite being incarcerated from January-July 2009, he released his white-hot Flamerz 2 in February, following it up with Flamerz 2.5 in October, and Flamerz 3 in March of 2010. Flamerz 3 was buoyed by a hit single called “Rose Red.” Mill immediately began tweeting at Ricky Rozay, The Boss, to get on the remix. After a few chance meetings on the road, the two linked up. “He must have liked what I was doing,” Mill told Billboard Magazine for a cover story on Ross’ successes as a label head. “I came down to Miami, and I’ve been Maybach ever since.”
Mill’s first big record as a part of the Maybach Music Group was “Tupac Back,” the lead single off Self-Made Vol 1., a MMG compilation and Ross‘ first time shepherding a release fronted by Warner Brothers. Backed by a thunderous synth and string heavy beat from molten hot ATL producer, Mike Will, Mill explodes on the track with his patented deranged gusto.
In the video, Mill’s wild-eyed excitement adds a sinister touch to his aggressive street barking, but even without visual aids, his voice – half-breathless vigor, half-exasperated scream – engenders the same panic and exhilaration of the ride the block all day, up-all-night lifestyle of a Philadelphia street dealer. He followed up “Tupac Back” by reteaming with Rozay for another earwormy street banger off Self Made Vol 1., the Jahlil Beats-produced “I’ma Boss.”
The video features Meek and Ricky riding motor-bikes and ATVs with the same reckless abandon of DMX and the Ruff Ryders in the late 90s, early 2000s, cruising the streets of Philadelphia and hanging out in front of landmark local cheesesteak spot Geno’s Steaks.
Despite excelling at tracks punctuated by the dynamic, anthemic beats of the post-Luger canon, Mill shines brightest on layered and introspective tracks like “Middle of Da Summer.” Aided by a desultory beat from Tone Beats (Jahlil’s brother!) the song examines the complex and contrasting relationship involved with enjoying the spoils of the lucrative drug trade while also dealing with its frequent, often violent consequences.
Stack all winter, just to stunt in the summer
Ridin’ in my new Camaro, sometimes I wonder:
‘Will it take me under or will it make me stronger?’
Thinkin’ of times when I was broke, it only gave me hunger
Shorty walkin’ through the block, it only me wanna
My homies was sellin’ dope and doing Jay-Z numbers
N—-, Smooje’s wrist was cold and throwin’ AC numbers
They only would front a zone and used to say we youngin’s
But we was ready, though
Around the time when all the rock was on the radio
Me and my n—-s on the block, with hammers heavy, tho
I used to put in my hand, ain’t want to let it go…ain’t want to let it go
No. The work was low, the numbers was right
Used to play the summer league, couple youngin’s was nice
They ain’t make it to the league, ‘cause it’ll fuck up your life
In the Middle of Da Summer when you’re fuckin’ with white
The second verse paints a vivid picture of a world full of imminent danger, heartbreak and regret, culminating with this chilling recollection: “City of Brotherly Love – I was only 13, I seen a puddle of blood/Grown man laying there, he got one in his mug/His grandma screamin’ ‘Told you about selling them drugs!’
Standing beside one of rap’s biggest one-note materialism maximalists in Ross, this kind of versatility helps Mill stand out as a truly multi-talented rapper. The pièce de résistance of Mill’s multi-faceted skillset is “Tony Story,” a cut from his essential Dreamchasers mixtape. With another hot beat from Jahlil Beats, Mill spins an intricate narrative of betrayal, revenge and murder that sounds like several episodes of The Wire compressed into one four-minute song.
With talent like this, the only thing that could hold Mill back from achieving widespread success would be an inability to score a true crossover hit. “I’ma Boss,” “Tupac Back,” and “House Party,” proved that he can dominate rap radio, but can he become a fixture on Top-40 stations and attack the charts like newcomer crossover success stories J. Cole (217,000 first week sales) and Mac Miller (145,000)? Probably not. Despite the success of Young Jeezy’s long-gestating TM103: Hustlerz Ambition (233,000), the steep decline in record sales for street rap (and rap in general) has led several major labels to keep their best gangsta rappers on the shelf (you know times are hard when even 50 Cent has trouble putting out an album). I expect his major-label debut – currently slated for release in the summer – to land somewhere between Tyga’s Careless World: Rise of the Last King (61,000) and Game’s R.E.D. Album (97,000). Despite all the uncertainty in Mill’s potential to fully crossover, one thing is certain – if he doesn’t succeed, it won’t be for a lack of talent.
Essential release: Dreamchasers (2011)
Recommended listening: “House Party,” “Don’t Panic,” “Tony Montana Freestyle”
On Dreamchasers, Mill has a track entitled “Derrick Rose,” perpetuating a new rap trend of memeifying celebrities and athletes in hooks and song titles. Credit for this trend (and a few others) belongs to Lil’ B, whose songs like “Ellen DeGeneres,” “Bill Bellamy,” and “Charlie Sheen,” are among his most popular. Today, my grab-bag recommendations feature three diverse songs that use memeified celebs as a jump-off point to tell three different stories.
Future writes massive pop-rap hooks tailor made for the Atlanta (night and strip) clubs where his music first caught fire early last year. He hit big with the single, “Tony Montana,” a track that got a big boost when Drake decided to hop on the remix. He was also featured on YC’s “Racks,” one of of last year’s biggest pop-rap hits and most quoted expressions. For “Jordan Diddy,” he reteams with his Free Brickz partner Gucci Mane in a braggadocios tribute to NBA legend Michael Jordan and marketing genius/hip-hop mogul/liquor pusher, Sean “Diddy” Combs. This isn’t Future at his best (for that, try “Itchin,’” “Space Cadets,” or “Made Myself a Boss”) but Gucci’s in fine form here. (“My money taller than Bill Cartwright/I’m rockin’ Michael Jordan’s, but I think I’m Michael Knight/Young P. Diddy of my city, mane/I’m shooting jumpshots, live in Magic City, mane”)
Next up, we have Big K.R.I.T.’s – “Boobie Miles.”
Big K.R.I.T. had a spectacular 2011. He began his year as on XXL’s coveted “Freshman” list, and ended it on many critics’ albums of the year lists with Return of 4Eva, an entirely self-produced release. His production skills drew attention from several big names, leading to K.R.I.T. landing production credits on records from industry heavyweights as diverse as T.I., The Roots, Chris Brown, and Ludacris. The 25-year-old Mississippi native also found time to co-headline the Smokers Club 2011 tour alongside Curren$y and Method Man. “Boobies Miles” is the first song released from K.R.I.T.’s forthcoming 4Eva N A Day mixtape and refers star high-school running back Boobie Miles of the Abilene, Texas Perriman Panthers, immortalized on screen by Derek Luke in the 2004 movie, Friday Night Lights. This isn’t the first time K.R.I.T. has utilized Boobie Miles as an extended metaphor in his music. His incredible, Adele-sampling “Hometown Hero” cut from last year’s Return of 4 Eva samples Luke-as-Boobie in its intro. This self-produced, soulful track is an ode to self-motivation, determination, and hard work.
Finally, we end with my favorite of these memeified rap tracks, Don Trip’s “Allen Iverson.”
Don Trip is a 26-year-old rapper from Memphis who garnered national attention last year after joining forces with Nashville-native, Starlito, to release Step Brothers, a mixtape loosely based on the Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly movie of the same name. Step Brothers was a resounding critical success. Pitchfork dubbed it one of the best mixtapes of the year, and Spin ranked it 8th on their Top-40 rap albums of the year, just below another collaborative record entitled Watch the Throne. Last year, Miami superproducers Cool & Dre made Don Trip the first artist signed to their Interscope-backed imprint, Epidemic Records. “Allen Iverson” is a record off of Trip’s recently released Guerilla mixtape that chronicles the tumultuous career of former NBA superstar Allen Iverson, drawing parallels between Trip’s life and Iverson’s. Trip’s penmanship is on full display here, painting a three-dimensional word portrait of a man often demonized or celebrated as representative of the generation, a position he never felt entirely comfortable with.