On July 17, the crowd at Dallas’ Gexa Energy Pavilion witnessed the full throes of “Omeeka.” The portmanteau describes the love of Meek Mill and Nicki Minaj (her real first name is Onika), and the couple wasn’t shy about celebrating it onstage that night: She licked his face; there was a makeout session; four duets were performed, including current hit “All Eyes on You.” As photos of their unbridled PDA ricocheted across the Web, tabloids reported that he had given her a $75,000 ring with yellow heart-shaped diamonds. By the time Minaj’s Pinkprint Tour, featuring Meek as opener, reached Brooklyn’s Barclays Center on July 26, though, the cross-country honeymoon for hip-hop’s most public lovebirds had been eclipsed by a brewing war of words. “Everyone, meet the woman who ‘got me starstruck,’ ” Meek said onstage of Minaj, quoting a line from “Charged Up,” a just-released diss track by new rival Drake that criticizes Meek and his starry-eyed love for Minaj.
For Meek, 28, the high-profile attention — from both paparazzi and superstar rap foes — is new, but he is a star in his own right. His sophomore album, Dreams Worth More Than Money, released June 29 through Rick Ross‘ Maybach Music Group and Atlantic Records, spent two weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard 200. Meek is a brand ambassador for Puma and an outspoken social media fixture, with around 9 million followers on Twitter and Instagram combined. He recently released a gaming app, Bike Life, which riffs on his well-known love for racing dirt bikes.On a muggy afternoon days before the tour, Meek slouches into a leather banquette at The Park, a cavernous restaurant in New York’s Meatpacking District, wearing a baseball hat with his crew’s Dream Chasers logo, denim shorts and Timberland boots. After ordering mussels and a pineapple-cranberry juice, he describes the hassles of his newfound celebrity. “You want to be private with your girl once in a while,” says Meek. “I would love to be able to just walk down the street by ourselves.” Even close family members could inadvertently expose him. “Say my mom took a picture of me with no shirt on,” he says. “I’m skinny — I got a little bird chest and a fat stomach. I can’t really tell my mom not to take that picture, that I’m not trying to have that type of look in the streets.”
In 2015 hip-hop, Meek is an outlier. He isn’t a confessional conversationalist like Drake, a philosopher like Kendrick Lamar or a rubbery harmonist like Fetty Wap. Instead, Meek thrives on aggression. His delivery is ravenous, almost shrill, and his cadences have the insistence of cranking pistons. “I’m not the best person at putting words together. I can’t give you the melody,” concedes Meek. “But I might inspire somebody.” His most emblematic record is “Dreams and Nightmares,” the title track to his 2012 debut, in which he seethes, “My momma need that bill money and my son need some milk/These n—as try and take my life, they f— around get killed.”
On his new album, Meek occasionally softens his snarl. “All Eyes on You” (which peaked at No. 28 on the Billboard Hot 100 and also features Chris Brown) is a love ballad; the cover art shows Meek and Minaj, lips inches apart. Behind the scenes, however, the song caused their biggest dustup to date. “She wanted it to be my single, and I didn’t,” he says. “It turned into an ego argument.” But he insists her success is not a threat. “She killed me on that song,” admits Meek, “but I don’t really care. When my girl do better than me, I still win. When I do better than her, she still wins.”
Still, Meek frowns when asked about Minaj’s 2014 single “Only,” which features her Young Money labelmates Drake and Lil Wayne talking dirty about their crushes on her. “She wasn’t my girl then, but now she wouldn’t even had did that,” he says. Days later, Meek accused Drake of using ghostwriters on Twitter and onstage, prompting Drake to release “Charged Up.” (Meek didn’t respond to Billboard‘s follow-up requests for comment.)
“You can’t be hard all the time, man,” he says of critics — such as rapper Joe Budden and, now, Drake — who suggest his romance is at odds with his hard-edged music. “There’s both sides to everything. What’s wrong with it? Jay Z was a street rapper and he had a girlfriend.”
Born Robert Rahmeek Williams, Meek grew up in a North Philadelphia household where this level of success seemed unattainable. When he was 5, his father was fatally shot. Meek’s mother supported the family by doing hair, working in a bank and taking semi-legal odd jobs. “Sometimes people just turn to the closest thing to get money,” says Meek. “She made it work.”
Philadelphia’s poverty and violence are reflected in its hip-hop. Aside from Will Smith and The Roots, the city is known for street-oriented artists like Beanie Sigel, polysyllabic lyrics about gunplay and a competitive, often internecine, battle scene. That was Meek’s universe growing up; in one of many YouTube clips from his mid-teens, he wears frizzy braids while spitting, “Let off and blow a motherf–er’s face off.” “You have two people standing face-to-face, saying the illest shit you could think of about the next person, and you’re doing it while you’re fully loaded and they’re fully loaded,” he recalls of carrying firearms to battles. “For the love of hip-hop, we was taking risks like that.”
At 18, in a world where Meek could “smell death in the air,” packing guns caught up with him. One night, armed while walking to a corner store, he was swarmed by police. They cuffed him, dragged him inside his house and “beat the shit out of me,” he alleges, displaying a mugshot of his swollen, bandaged face that he has on his phone. “[I had] a concussion, stitches, braids ripped out. My blood was on the ceiling, on the floor.” He still has handcuff scars on his wrists.Meek was convicted of gun and drug charges stemming from the arrest in 2008 and released from prison the next year, but the case still haunts him. Even after rising through the mixtape world, aligning himself with T.I. and then Ross, and selling more than 428,000 copies of Dreams and Nightmares, according to Nielsen Music, Meek landed back in the penal system in 2014, when he violated his five-year probation by doing out-of-state shows without permission. He returned to jail for five months, spending most of them in solitary confinement. “Imagine being locked in your bathroom 23 hours a day,” says Meek. “That’s the closest I ever came to losing my mind. You’re talking to yourself, playing games with the birds in the window. It’s hell.”
Police brutality and the criminal justice system have dominated recent news cycles, but Meek, who has a 4-year-old son with an ex-girlfriend, rarely uses his elevated platform as a soapbox. “I’m scared to be political,” he says. “You get too powerful and more people try to take you out. My son ain’t trying to hear that his dad got put away because he was fighting for the country.”
Meek has reason to be paranoid: In just one of “so many” pre-fame near-misses, he says, someone fired at his doorstep in 2009. And so, aside from spiraling fame and income, another benefit of Meek’s tour with Minaj is that it keeps him off the streets of his hometown. “Philly ain’t a good environment for you when you headed in a different direction,” he says, scooping his diamond-speckled chain off the table and roping it around his neck. “Bad things happen left and right. You might walk up the street, make a wrong turn, and your whole life could flip.”
Listen to music from Meek Mill, as well as other artists featured in this issue, in the Spotify playlist below:
This story will appear in the Aug. 8 issue of Billboard.