When Meek Mill announced his long-awaited sophomore album would be titled Dreams Worth More Than Money around this time last year, it seemed to mark a transition in tone from the loud-mouthed MMG MC. For so long his narrative had revolved around the pursuit of money, the validation of fame, the escape from the nightmares of his upbringing in the rough streets of Philly. But this album, now three years in the making after last year's six-month jail stint set the clock back once again, was to be bigger than the excesses and indulgences that come along with being a hip-hop star standing beside one of the game's dominant forces in Rick Ross. This album was supposed to be Meek Mill's thesis statement, the one that set him on the course for superstardom and validated all the dreams he had growing up. It may have taken nine more months than Meek had originally intended, but Dreams Worth More Than Money has been more than worth the wait.

As is his custom by now, the album opens with an introduction that both sets the tone and builds the drama. "Lord Knows" is one of a handful of songs that lifts its title from 2pac, but it lifts its aesthetic more from Gucci Mane's State Vs. Radric Davis opener "Classical," as Meek spits fire over an instrumental that could score the climactic final shootout of a gangster film with its soaring choral arrangement. It's the first indication that DWMTM would be a different type of album from Meek; the second track, the Bangladesh-produced "Classic," hammers that point home with a sassy piano line that slaps the listener in the face and makes them sit up. "It's hot outside," Swizz Beatz crows on the intro, "Meek Milly's comin'!"

At that point, Meek begins to lay the intertwining narratives that run throughout the album, a combination of determination and awe. There's plenty of the cockiness that the firebrand typically brings, but there's also an element of wonder, in a way, of not quite believing that all those dreams may have finally devoured his nightmares. Meek has changed, a fact he points out in "Lord Knows": "Shout out that judge that denied me my bail/It made me smarter and made me go harder/They locked me up and slowed my album up but I did not give up/'Cause I knew I would prevail." Still headstrong, he's got a perspective to his raps now, not quite believing that when he looks down around his neck that the diamonds are his. And not quite believing that when he looks to the side, it's Nicki Minaj who is walking step by step with him.

The two Nicki-featuring tracks, "All Eyes On You" (another 2pac reference that actually swagger jacks Biggie's flow from "Notorious Thugs") and "Bad For You" are both clear highlights and underscore the third theme that runs through the album: Meek is in love with the only girl who can step to him toe to toe and offset his realness with her badness. Even "Pullin' Up," featuring The Weeknd, feeds into this narrative, as Meek raps about waiting around until his girl's man is out of the picture. Now that that's the case, he's on top of the world and counting his blessings.

The features on the album may be a touch predictable, but each adds to the development of the record rather than takes away from his spotlight. Future's warbling run of drug-addled depression continues unabated with a verse and hook that is more agile than he has been of late; the Drake-featuring "R.I.C.O.," with its almost menacing, deliberate beat courtesy of Vinylz will be a staple for 3 am club nights; and by the time Rick Ross comes through for "Been That," the only typically-Maybach-sounding cut on the album, it's almost welcome to hear a familiar-type of beat, so varied is the production throughout. "The Trillest" is a feel-good radio record that will last into the dog days of summer, while "I Got The Juice" stands up, despite the phrase becoming near-ubiquitous by now. The only song that isn't up to the standard Meek has set is "Ambitionz"; by lifting 'Pac's "Ambitionz Az A Ridah" hook in its entirety it almost feels like Meek is slamming the point home a little too hard. Meek, like Kendrick and even Boosie already this year, is clearly in his 2pac moment.

All the way through, Dreams Worth More Than Money feels fresh and, more importantly, refreshing. There are few moments that miss the mark; instead, Meek Mill takes the time and the effort to expand his sound and try new things, telling his story by lifting the veil on his vulnerabilities and sounding genuinely excited about his life at the moment. There have been ups and downs along the way, particularly in the past 12 months, but life is good for Meek Mill right now. Dreams Worth More Than Money proves it. —Dan Rys