There’s something special about adversity. The idea of withstanding pain and hardship leaves us tougher and ultimately more resilient in the end. A diamond forms under pressure, “what does not kill me makes me stronger” and so on. Meek Mill is living proof. Following a stretch of obstacles — including the fight for his very freedom — the Philly rapper emerges victorious and finds his voice on Championships (Atlantic Records).
“Gotta take advantage for all them cold nights I’ve been thru,” Meek shared on the eve of the release of his fourth studio album. Championships marks the bookend to a lengthy string of cold nights for the 31-year-old. In November 2017, he was sentenced for two to four years in state prison for violating probation in a nearly 10-year-old drug and gun case. Fans rallied behind him. #FreeMeek reverberated far beyond hip-hop, inciting a national discussion on the criminal justice system. “What’s happening to Meek Mill is just one example of how our criminal justice system entraps and harasses hundreds of thousands of black people every day,” JAY-Z wrote in an op-ed in the New York Times. In April, the rapper was released and granted bail. “While the past five months have been a nightmare, the prayers, visits, calls, letters and rallies have helped me stay positive,” he said in a statement to Billboard.
Meek tackles his darkest hour head-on in album opener “Trauma.” “My mama used to pray that she’d see me in Yale/ It’s fucked up she gotta see me in jail,” he laments. The rapper makes no bones about his issues with the embattled judge in his case, either. “And even worst, my judge black don’t wanna see me do well/ It’s either that or black people for sale/ Gave me two to four years like, ‘Fuck your life, meet me in hell,’” he raps.
Life comes at you fast. Streetwise and with commercial appeal, Meek was once among the top of his class. His “Dreams and Nightmares” was the soundtrack to his hometown. He dated Nicki Minaj and “did shit with Mariah.” Now, he takes a step back and muses how quickly his upward trajectory turned: “I went from selling out arenas, now shit, I’m on sale.” It’s a moment of humbling, real vulnerability from the usually ferocious rapper. Produced by Don Cannon, “Trauma” samples Barclay James Harvest’s “Taking Me Higher,” which hip-hop heads remember from Mobb Deep’s classic “Get Away.” It’s one of several clever samples that appear throughout the album. On “24/7” (with Ella Mai) share a sensual moment with assistance from Beyoncé’s “Me, Myself and I.”
Meek raps with the same fervor he’s always had, but there’s a discernable focus on Championships. He’s bridled his high-octane flow and is more clear-eyed. Incarceration has sparked a new purpose in him, as an activist and also as a man coming into his own. This is deeper than rap. We are witnessing the maturation of Meek Mill.
On “What’s Free,” which samples the Notorious B.I.G.’s “What’s Beef?”, Meek explores the parallels between incarceration and bondage. “I think they want me silenced/ Oh, say can you see, I don’t feel like I’m free/ Locked down in my cell, shackled from ankle to feet,” he raps. JAY-Z pulls up the rear on the track, which also features Rick Ross, by splendidly breaking down corporate slavery: “I’m 50 percent of D’usse and it’s debt-free/ 100% of Ace of Spades, worth half a B/Roc Nation, half of that, that’s my piece/Hunnid percent of Tidal to bust it up with my Gs.”
In what is very well contender for rap verse of the year, Jay appears to throw jabs at Kanye West for his recent pro-Trump rhetoric. “No red hat, don’t Michael and Prince me and Ye/ They separate you when you got Michael and Prince’s DNA,” he says. Later, he took to Twitter to explain that there were no hard feelings: “The line clearly meant don’t pit me against my brothers no matter what our differences are (red hat) now go pick up Meek album. Drake and Meek on there together,” he said.
The reunion of Meek and Drake is a high point of Championships. After squashing their beef onstage in September, the two extend a musical olive branch on “Going Bad,” flexing about their lavish lifestyles over a charged beat by Wheezy. Real life shit puts petty rap beef into perspective. It’s nice to see two grown men come together to just shoot the breeze on fun things: money, fancy cars and pretty women. Another standout moment is the energetic bop “On Me,” which features Cardi B stealing the show in perhaps her most confident rapping to date.
Meek Mill has made a signature of creating momentous album intros. The preamble to Championships is no exception. Meek breaks down his path to victory over Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight,” an introspective favorite of rappers. “We in the championship/ We was down 3-1,” he explains. Despite the odds, he made it. “Ooh, I just cashed out/ How the fuck you turn a bando to a glass house?/ How the fuck you get a two to four and bail out?” he asks.
No one ever expected Meek Mill to be here. Maybe not even him. The underdog is now the champ.