The life of Meek Mill has been nothing short of an American epic. He grew up poor, raised by a single mother after his dad was shot and killed when he was 5-years-old. He emerged as a teenage rap sensation flowing on Philadelphia street corners (“I break bricks and throw shells like Mario”) and eventually grew into one of the country’s most charismatic rap stars – a self-made millionaire who fulfilled his wildest dreams. And yet he has never been able to cast off the lidless, Sauron-like gaze of the criminal justice system. He has been on probation since he caught weapons and drugs charges in 2007, and late last year, Judge Genece Brinkley, who has been assigned to his case since the very beginning, ruled that he violated probation by popping a wheelie on his dirt bike in upper Manhattan and sentenced him to two-to-four years in prison.
When the Pennsylvania Supreme Court overturned Meek’s sentence five months later in April 2018, he emerged from Graterford Correctional Facility with a burning desire to speak out against the ills of the justice system. He appeared on NBC Dateline, penned an op-ed in the New York Times, and announced a new foundation spearheaded by himself and 76ers owner Michael Rubin. In the lead-up to the release of his new full-length Championships, he eschewed conventional promotional tactics in favor of candid discussions of criminal justice reform on CNN, Ellen, and Beats 1. Though Meek insists he doesn’t consider himself an activist, he has positioned himself, at the very least, as an advocate.
Championships, thrust forward by Meek’s renewed sense of purpose and righteous fury, brims with the spirit of a crusader. It is true that he has always dwelled on the stark realities of life for inner-city black youth. He has always rapped loudly and passionately, as though a salty brine may well up in his eyes at any moment. But never has he so urgently communicated the thin line between success and jail or death for people who grow up like him, or the shadow of the mother forced to silently endure her son’s death. Championships’ 70-minute run time doesn’t keep it from being as forceful and focused as any project Meek has ever put out.
On “Trauma,” he adopts a wide lens to explore how, for people growing up in poor black neighborhoods, trauma accumulates across generations and assails at multiple angles. Meek is equally concerned for parent and child. He notes that jail visits were shameful for both he and his mother, and later warns a parent, “Your son trapping now and your homie giving nose to him/ And if he fuck that paper up, he putting holes through him” before describing the pain felt “when them drugs got a hold of your mama, and the judge got a hold on your father/ Go to school, bullet holes in the locker.”
“Trauma” is one of the clear standouts of Championships; so is “What’s Free,” a 6-minute odyssey featuring a superb, prolonged JAY-Z verse that mirrors “The Story of O.J.” in quality and tone: “They gave us pork and pig intestines/ Shit you discarded that we ingested, we made the project a wave/ You came back, reinvested and gentrified it/ Took niggas’ sense of pride, now how that’s free?”
A flip of Biggie’s “What’s Beef,” “What’s Free” reverses the mafioso aura of its predecessor to underscore the powerlessness even rich black folks experience in the shadow of authority figures like Judge Brinkley, whom Meek references several times across the album: “Locked down in my cell, shackled from ankle to feet/ Judge banging that gavel, turned me to slave from a king.”
On the title track, Meek achieves dissonance by rapping a litany of hood tragedies amidst a soaring saxophone sample. In this way, it invokes Beanie Sigel’s “Feel It in the Air” (“I sit alone in my four-cornered room staring at hammers/ Ready to go bananas”). More than once, Meek is unable to divorce the vision of a young man killed with that of the grieving mother: “I know a young’un that got murked, ain’t get to drive no Wraith/ But he in the hearse on the way to church, I know his mom gon’ faint/ When she smell like embalmment fluid, cologne all on her baby.” Meek shares a memory of playing with guns as a pre-teen only a couple years after blissfully playing with toys that leaves the listener with a mixed sense of nostalgia and nausea. In Meek’s community, innocence is especially precious.
Though songs like these comprise the album’s emotional core and contain its most indelible moments, Meek devotes at least as much time on Championships to reveling in the spoils of victory. The intro is vintage Meek: atop a melodramatic, Paid in Full-inspired sample of Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight,” he delivers an opening salvo that frames his past struggles as a backdrop and places his sexual escapades and luxury flexes front and center. “Got three hoes off that molly ripping panties off/ Flying private to Dubai, we off the Xanny bars,” he raps. Championships builds on his strong pedigree as a party rapper – he is just as vital when “trapping out the Waldorf” as he is as a chronicler of street life, as an escapist and a realist – and benefits from strong verses from the Latino delegation of Cardi B, Melli, and Anuel AA. The album only really falters when he tries to present himself as a sensuous lover (“Dangerous,” “Almost Slipped,” “24/7”); as ever, he is more convincing as a no-fucks-given lothario (“On Me,” “Stuck in Ways,” “WTS”).
Championships is as much about the poverty, violence, and Draconian jail sentences as it is about trying to move past those things. One thing Meek’s incarceration put into perspective was his beef with Drake, which they formally squashed with Drizzy’s feature on “Going Bad.” When held up next to real-life events, their beef, like most rap beefs, became exposed as sport, spectacle, clickbait. When Meek got out of jail, he shrugged off his once career-threatening squabble with Drake like it was nothing, made his most inspired album yet, and embarked on what feels like a new life chapter yet. For Meek, it’s all about the future now.