His time has come: Just six months after he crashed several file-sharing sites with more than 3 million downloads of his free mixtape, Dreamchasers 2, Philadelphia rapper Meek Mill's long-anticipated debut album, Dreams and Nightmares, arrives Tuesday. He scored a top 10 urban hit over the summer with Amen, featuring Drake and Jeremih, and a second hit, the Kirko Bangz-assisted Young and Gettin It, is on its way up. The Maybach Music signee has also had several high-profile showcases, including performing with label boss Rick Ross and Mariah Carey on the NFL Kickoff concert in New York. He'll join Ross and the rest of the Maybach crew on a 30-date college tour that starts Nov. 2 in Columbus, Ohio.
A two-sided story: On Dreams and Nightmares, 25-year-old Meek (aka Robert Williams) talks about avoiding the pitfalls of urban streets, while also exalting the success he now enjoys. He gets plenty of help with guest appearances by Ross, Wale, Nas, John Legend, Mary J.Blige and Trey Songz. "A lot of the songs are about my life, my pain, and you can tell I've been through these things," says Meek, whose father was killed when he was 5. "You can feel it. The dream part is me living as an artist making money touring across the world, and nightmares touches on everything that it took for me to make it from the streets."
Making his own legend: Meek Mill's uncle, Grandmaster Nell, an old-school Philadelphia rap pioneer, encouraged his nephew at an early age to spend time in the studio and develop his raw talent. He joined the four-member rap group BloodHoundz and began putting out his own mixtapes in 2005. Over the next three years, he became a local celebrity, fueling the fire with energetic shows.
"(The Internet) is the biggest form of promotion and I could send my music out worldwide," says Meek, who has the words "motivation" and "dedication" prominently tatted on his forearms. "It's a win-lose situation because you're giving your music away for free, but I still get to do shows. I was just showcasing my music and relying on my talent to get my message around."
Taking a wrong turn: By 2008, record labels were starting to take serious interest, as his Flamers mixtapes were some of the hottest on the streets. He came close to signing with T.I'.s Grand Hustle label, but was arrested on gun charges and spent eight months in jail. He hasn't looked back since, releasing a steady stream of music (including a half-dozen mixtapes), making featured appearances with other artists and touring.
"I just work hard and stay focused," says the rapper, whose stage name stems from his middle name, Rahmeek. "I have high expectations for anything I do, and I have to stay at the top of my game."
Breaking out: He garnered critical acclaim and an expanded fan base with his 2011 DJ Drama-hosted mixtape Dreamchasers, on which he talked about his life in the 'hood and future aspirations. It helped land him on the cover of hip-hop magazine XXL's annual Freshman Class issue. The previous summer, Meek had tweeted to Ross, inviting him to collaborate on a song, Rose Red, which also featured T.I. and Vado. Ross later saw the younger rapper move the crowd at a concert and signed him to Maybach Music Group in February 2011.
Meek appeared on both of the label's Self Made compilations, scoring hits featuring Ross with Tupac Back and Ima Boss.
Prepped for success: His momentum carried over into this year, but even he was stunned by the overwhelming response to Dreamchasers 2, which was downloaded 1.5 million times within six hours of its release.
"When I woke up, I was surprised myself to see it have that many hits," says Meek, who later that month signed a management deal with Roc Nation. "Everybody had been talking about Dreamchasers 1, so it seems everybody was just waiting for Dreamchasers 2 and got it."
Facing controversy: The mixtape's first hit, the explicit Amen, proved his biggest to date, but he also wound up having to defend it against accusations of blasphemy. On it, Meek and Drake cheerfully thank God for all the money, sex and alcohol their rap careers have given them over a church organ-driven beat. Pastor Jomo K. Johnson, of Philadelphia's Open Air Church, called for a boycott of the song and engaged the rapper in a heated exchange on the radio. Ultimately, Meek said he meant no disrespect to anyone's religion, and there was no boycott. He says he's put the issue behind him. "I was thanking God for all the blessings he gave me," he says. "There was nothing I could really do about (the controversy) but move on."