How Meek Mill’s ‘Dreams & Nightmares’ Became Philly’s Ultimate Underdog Anthem

It’s uncommon — and, typically, unfortunate — for an intro to be celebrated as an album’s defining moment. What’s perhaps even more rare, however, is for an intro to become arguably that artist’s signature record. But for Meek Mill, the opening statement of his 2012 debut album, Dreams and Nightmares, will forever be regarded as his manifesto.

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The “Dreams and Nightmares (Intro)” is an intense juxtaposition of extremes: being stuck at the bottom, then rising to the top against the odds. It unfolds in two acts: Meek chronicling his ascent over somber keys before reveling in the success no one expected from a kid from Berks Street, as the beat abruptly turns sinister. It’s extraordinary because of how Meek’s urgency mounts, his volume gradually increasing before he erupts into unbridled adrenaline. “It’s kind of reversed, but when you hear it, the dream part is a little softer and when we go into that nightmare, it turns into a massacre,” Meek told hip-hop journalist Shaheem Reid in 2012.

Quincy Harris, host of The Q on Fox Philadelphia and “The Quincy Harris Morning Show with K. Foxx” on 100.3 FM, recalls hearing “Dreams and Nightmares (Intro)” about a year before when The Beat Bully, the song’s producer, played it for him during a meeting. Harris was instantly blown away. “I really couldn’t believe I was hearing a record of that magnitude coming from a new-school Philly artist,” Harris tells Billboard. “I’ve known Meek since 2005 or 2006, and that record was really a sign of his progression in the game.”

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What was intended to serve as a tone-setting opening statement for Dreams and Nightmares unexpectedly grew into a special moment — an instant classic that Drake once described as “one of the best rap moments of our generation,” back when he and Meek were on good terms. The song has only grown more impactful over time.

Much of that impact comes from the feeling “Dreams and Nightmares (Intro)” evokes. It’s deeply rooted in Meek Mill’s North Philadelphia upbringing; the grit and chip-on-your-shoulder ambition that characterize the city are evident throughout the song. Hence why the Philadelphia Eagles have embraced it as their anthem during a rocky journey to Super Bowl Lll. They, like Meek, succeeded despite being written off. But being written off or doubted is not exclusive to Philadelphia — that’s a narrative many can relate to or, at the very least, understand. Therein lies the root of the song’s popularity: it’s become an anthem because it channels a relatable narrative into raw energy — something any listener can feel.

Meek Mill said he’s long felt the record was special (“Me and my homies, we always thought that about the intro,” he told Complex in 2014, in response to Drake’s praise), but he’s acknowledged that he had no idea it would adopt this extended cultural afterlife. “I didn’t think [people] would respond to that song like that,” he admitted on Hot 97’s Juan Epstein podcast in 2013. “But you know, that’s why I made that song in that manner. I didn’t think they was gon’ catch it the way they caught it.”

DJ Cosmic Kev, a legend at Philadelphia’s Power 99 FM and one of the most respected voices in the local hip-hop community, says “Dreams and Nightmares (Intro)” was one of three records Meek sent him well before his debut was released. According to Cosmic Kev, the intro wasn’t the song from this initial batch that Meek was the most enthusiastic about.

“He sent me ‘Dreams & Nightmares,’ ‘Amen,’ and ‘Willy Wonka’ — which was off one of the mixtapes, because he had done those records early,” Cosmic Kev says. “When he sent me ‘Willy Wonka,’ I was snappin’ on that. Because, once again, the energy on that record [is crazy]. But at the time, he was pushing ‘Amen’ because of the [Drake] feature, back when those guys were good.”

Cosmic Kev was impressed by “Willy Wonka,” but also immediately recognized that “Dreams and Nightmares (Intro)” was sublime. “I remember listening to the [beginning] where the piano is playing, and he told me to just wait,” he says. “When I heard, ‘Hold up wait a minute…’ I knew, right then and there, that it was over. It was going to be a Philadelphia anthem.”

The intrinsic bond between the intro and Philadelphia’s identity and attitude are undeniable. But Meek Mill’s frustration and desperation have nothing to do with Philly losing its claim as the nation’s capital at the top of the 19th century, and less to do with the behavior of the city’s despised sports fans. He grew accustomed to dealing with life or death scenarios from a young age, and describes being painted into a corner by life in vivid detail. Believe him when he yells “All I know is murder” during the song’s second half. Believe him when he says his fervent desire to excel was stirred by that sense of hopelessness.

“I used to believe you couldn’t be anything coming from the streets,” he told Complex in 2012. “You’re surrounded by guns, drugs, and money. People are dying every day and I thought I was going to get killed. Philly gave me my ambition and drive to get more. It’s a reminder to stay on top of my game. That’s not a place I want to go back to.”

Harris notes that the record’s grimy qualities embody Philly, but the passion in Meek’s voice makes “Dreams and Nightmares (Intro)” feel more like he’s simply relaying his truth over an instrumental. Sometimes, there’s ugliness to that truth. “If you’ve been in Philly, there’s this mixture of pain and struggle, and it was like he was grabbing the moment from whoever thought he wasn’t who they thought he was,” he says.

Comparing Meek Mill to Rocky Balboa, or “Dreams and Nightmares (Intro)” to “Gonna Fly Now,” the theme from Rocky, is easy. Two underdogs, two theme songs. The clear difference is that Meek Mill is no fictional manifestation of Philly’s spirit, and his anthem has not only a dynamic edge, but speaks to an even less glamorous component of the city’s makeup. Other icons who have come from behind to emerge victorious from the city are stronger parallels.

“You think about Will Smith and people think of Will Smith the actor,” Harris says. “But before that, he was a rapper, and he went broke. He was flat broke, then he rose and became this international superstar. People only see the international superstar part. You think about Kevin Hart, this dude had a TV show on ABC that came on Friday nights and got cancelled. People don’t know that. Then for a minute, Kevin Hart was the comedian from Soul Plane. He had to reinvent himself; he had to fight. Nothing comes easy for us, and that’s what you hear in that record.”

Although Cosmic Kev places “Dreams and Nightmares (Intro)” in the rarefied group of requisite Philly hip-hop records, he believes it’s in a class by itself. “Schoolly D’s ‘PSK, What Does It Mean’ and Cool C’s ‘Glamorous Life’ are anthems about the gangster getting money,” he says. “‘Summertime’ is an anthem about summertime. When you mention ‘Dreams & Nightmares,’ once again, it’s about the underdog, on the come up, taking over.”

“Dreams and Nightmares (Intro),” as heavy with Philadelphia ethos as it is, carries a sentiment felt beyond city and state lines. This was an unanticipated development for Cosmic Kev, who didn’t know its impact would travel as far as it has. “You don’t have to be from Philadelphia,” he explains. “It’s exceeded that. It’s an anthem [across] so many different areas: it’s a sports anthem, and it’s an anthem for encouragement.”

The Eagles have found strength in the song’s motivational overtones, and will be using it as their pregame intro music when they take the field at Super Bowl LII. The sad reality, however, is that Meek Mill isn’t free to enjoy their success or celebration of what’s become his trademark. He’s currently imprisoned at Chester State Correctional Institution in suburban Philadelphia, where he’s serving a two-to-four year prison sentence for violating the conditions of his probation. The violations stem from a 2008 conviction for gun and drug charges; the charges in both violations were ultimately dismissed. He was sentenced to jail last fall despite his probation officer and a city prosecutor recommending otherwise in a case that’s drawn national attention for its strange developments as much as the defendant’s celebrity profile.

Meek Mill released a statement to Bleacher Report and NBC Sports Philadelphia last week saying that the Eagles’ ability to overcome adversity en route to the Super Bowl with “Dreams and Nightmares (Intro)” as their soundtrack motivated him. “It’s the underdog thing: nobody believes in us but us, and if you know Meek, that’s how he feels,” Harris says. The energy he emitted via that song came back around when he was in need of a boost. Still, Meek’s current situation is a sobering reminder that money and fame rarely protect black men from a flawed criminal justice system designed to keep people inside of it. The dreams and nightmares he rapped about with such zeal are cyclical; he’s still trapped in the cycle.

“The saying is true: it doesn’t matter how much money you have, you’re still going to be — and I’ll say it the clean way — an African-American,” Cosmic Kev says of Meek’s incarceration. “You could have Bill Gates or Jeff Bezos money, but if you’re black, you’re always going to be just that.”

As much as “Dreams and Nightmares (Intro)” is the defining Meek Mill record, both themes preside over his life. But because of the trauma and misfortune he’s experienced since birth, he won’t allow setbacks define to him. That’s because of the lion’s heart he mentions during the first verse — a trait listeners appreciate. One they respect because they feel it in the music, no matter where they’re from. And one so resonant that it made the record exceptionally impactful, a turn Meek himself didn’t foresee.

“I don’t even think Meek thought ‘Dreams & Nightmares’ was going to be as big as it was,” Cosmic Kev says. “I don’t think anyone could have predicted it.”

“It will always be a Philadelphia classic — and a hip-hop classic, period. That record could be 30 years old and it will still be an anthem; it’s timeless.”

This story was first posted to Billboard.