On Oct. 10, a few more-than-notable guests stopped by a listening party for Meek Mill's "Dreams & Nightmares" at New York's Electric Lady Studios. Jay-Z and Will Smith poked their heads into the private event before the Maybach Music Group rapper previewed his album for a small crowd. By the end of the evening, producer/singer The-Dream, Philadelphia Eagles wideout DeSean Jackson, labelmate Wale and Maybach head Rick Ross had all shown up to support the 25-year-old MC. "He's earned this himself," Ross told the crowd. "I'm just proud of the homey."
"Dreams & Nightmares," due Oct. 30 on Maybach/Warner Bros. Records, is only Mill's studio debut. But the star-studded event demonstrated the buzz he already has. "Any time you see your work being recognized by some of the greatest in the game, it feels good," says Mill, born Robert Williams. "It serves as motivation."
The album arrives after a hectic two years for the Philadelphia artist. After an unsuccessful stint with T.I.'s Grand Hustle label in 2008, Mill signed to Maybach in February 2011 -- a move that boosted the credibility of Ross' burgeoning brand and heightened Mill's visibility outside of the Northeast. (The rapper says that before signing to Maybach, "I couldn't really go [touring] past North Carolina.")
Since then, Mill has appeared on both volumes of Maybach's "Self Made" compilations, on which he earned top billing on hit singles "Ima Boss" and "Tupac Back." Just as Wale's association with Maybach helped him rejigger his career -- 2011's "Ambition" has sold 456,000 copies (according to Nielsen SoundScan), compared with the 163,000 his 2009 Interscope set Attention Deficit has sold -- Mill's presence made him an upstart star on a buzzed-about hip-hop label. Taking cues from Ross, Mill started pulling all-nighters in the studio to release material and weave street stories alongside Ross' tales of excess.
"Meek was a great fit because he gave Maybach a different look," Warner Bros. Records co-president/CEO Todd Moscowitz says. "Each artist on the label fills a different role, and Meek definitely represents the young, fly kids who come up from the bottom."
"Dreams & Nightmares" mixes flashy club bangers and enviable guest features by Nas, Mary J. Blige and Trey Songz with surprisingly personal snapshots like the Boi-1da-produced "Traumatized." The album was pushed back from its initial Aug. 28 release date, but the delay allowed "Dreamchasers 2," Mill's latest free mixtape that hit the Web in May, to gain momentum. "Amen," a pop-leaning standout from the mixtape that features Drake, was picked up by R&B/hip-hop radio and then worked as a single, reaching No. 5 on Billboard's Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart and No. 57 on the Billboard Hot 100. It has sold 313,000 downloads.
A project like "Dreamchasers 2," which follows 2011's "Dreamchasers," is "not a direct correlation to the bottom line, but it does wonders for artist development," Warner Bros. Records VP of marketing Shari Bryant says. "Amen" is still simmering at radio (it's No. 24 on Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs) and will appear on "Dreams & Nightmares," while new single "Young and Gettin' It," a club-ready track featuring Kirko Bangz, will lead up to the album's release.
Both songs were played by Mill during his performance at the BET Hip-Hop Awards, which aired Oct. 9. The rapper will also visit "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon" on Nov. 12, and Roc Nation VP of management Rich Kleiman, who manages Mill with Philip Smith, says more TV appearances are forthcoming. But the push for "Dreams & Nightmares" has primarily been a combination of Web promotion, sponsorship deals and touring. Pitchfork unveiled a "Making of Dreams & Nightmares" video series in September, while a clip for the song "Burn" was released online in early October. Meanwhile, Mill signed an endorsement deal with Puma in August and unveiled a Dreamchasers line with apparel company "Young & Reckless" in early October. And after opening on select dates for Drake's Club Paradise tour earlier this year and embarking on a short headlining trek in August, Mill will join Ross and Wale on a 23-date Maybach tour this fall.
"He has such an incredible vision of what he wants his brand to be, from every tweet that he writes to every blog post to every song that he's released," Kleiman says.
Next year will bring more touring, including headlining slots at bigger venues, as well as new music. "As soon as this CD dies down a little bit, I'm going to have 'Dreamchasers 3' up and ready to go," Mill says.
The rapper may have only one album to his name, but for Bryant, Mill is already a cornerstone of both Maybach and Warner's future in hip-hop. "A project like ['Dreams & Nightmares'] does so much for the brand," Bryant says. "When you look back at 'hip-hop labels,' the only people that you were talking about were Def Jam and Atlantic. Now, you hear Warner Bros. in that conversation. And it has everything to do with having this caliber of artists associated with us."