In the midst of the run-up to the 2012 election and during the worst storm to hit the East Coast in recent memory, Philly’s own Meek Mill released his debut album, Dreams and Nightmares. Although the album is not a standout in terms of its content, in a year where Rapsody released The Idea of Beautiful, Nas released Life is Good, and Lupe Fiasco released F&L II: The Great American Rap Album Part 1, someone who follows hip hop culture closely will find much more to celebrate than to critique.
That said, I am not here to review the album, but to make note of the powerful imagery of the album cover art — the Rolex and the handcuff. The fusion of material aspiration, the Rolex watch, and mass incarceration, the gold handcuff, are symbolic of what Bakari Kitwana defines as the hip hop generation: Those young Black and brown folk born between 1964 and 1985 — give or take several years — who subscribe to hip hop culture, know where they were when Tupac and Biggie died, and count the Los Angeles riots, 9/11, police brutality, mass incarceration and post-civil rights politics amongst their most important socio-political touchstones.
As bad luck or irony would have it, Meek Mill was detained, but not arrested, by Philadelphia police on Nov. 1, 2012. He later tweeted to his nearly two million followers: “The crazy part about it is I really had a handcuff and Rolex on my wrist yesterday . . . Really #DreamsAndNightmares.” Normally, this kind of art imitating reality imitating art is precisely the kind of situation that indelibly imprints rap artists in the collective conscious of reality rap consumers. No doubt it will have similar impact with Meek Mill’s considerable fan base.
Just a few days prior to Meek Mill's album was released I received a call from Lupe Fiasco. Now, I don’t field calls from internationally renowned hip hop artists on a regular basis so I took the call with excitement and anticipation. Lupe, after all, is one of the most politically engaged and socially conscious artists of our era. He told me about how he had just seen a billboard promoting Meek Mill’s album in an inner city Chicago neighborhood. For Lupe, seeing the Rolex-handcuff image in the middle of the 'hood was a powerful emblem, symbolizing the impossible dilemma with which too many young people are confronted. For it to come from Meek Mill is all the more powerful, considering the fact that the image should speak to those who are most likely to understand its significance.
The cover art for Dreams and Nightmares blurs any distinction between late-capitalist inner-city materialism and the prison industrial complex. It effectively captures the absence of options for too many of our inner-city youth who live in a world where Rolexes are flaunted in their faces almost as much as mass incarceration impacts their lives or those of their family and friends. The image adeptly links material culture to the over-representation of our community in prisons across America. In this “American” system of incarceration there are no distinctions between dreams and nightmares, especially for those who have limited options and diminished opportunities.
James Braxton Peterson is the director of Africana Studies at Lehigh University, a scholar of hip hop and Black popular culture, and a regular commentator online and on various cable news networks.
The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.
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