Meek Mill’s new No. 1 ‘Championships’ is a triumph inspired by pain
Meek is in rare territory: He’s the hero in a cautionary tale who gets to tell his own story — and benefit from it
“I give a f— if that crown heavy / Put it on my head …”
Meek Mill is on a justifiable victory lap. He played pingpong to pass the time while he was in prison on a controversial parole violation — and now he’s playing with Ellen DeGeneres. Last week he was on CNN discussing the realities for young men and women of color caught in the U.S. criminal justice system. Last year, his rap classic “Dreams and Nightmares (Intro)” helped propel his hometown Philadelphia Eagles to their first Super Bowl win in franchise history. And this week, his fourth studio album, Championships, debuts as Billboard’s No. 1 album and has won praise from LeBron James, Allen Iverson, Josh Hart, Patrick Beverley and others.
Championships is the most complete and personal project of Mill’s career — and that’s due to a trio of factors. One, Philadelphia native Robert Rihmeek Williams is now 31. Two, his most recent stint in prison, one that culminated in a roller-coaster day that began in a cell and included a helicopter and courtside seats at a Philadelphia 76ers playoff game, has made him vocal about societal issues. And, three, he’s comfortable rapping about the ever-looming fear of returning to prison.
That fear was palpable Dec. 2 in New York City. At the PlayStation Theater in Times Square, during a conversation with Elliott Wilson for TIDAL’s CRWN series, Mill’s laughter made his pain even more deeply felt. He cracked jokes in a fur coat that would send People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals into convulsions, but he was clearly vulnerable, weaving in and out of prison chronicles. About, for example, how inmates doing life sentences in the Chester, Pennsylvania, state prison where Mill was for six months were flabbergasted when he told them about the phenomenon of Instagram models.
While Mill did relive the time Sixers minority owner Michael Rubin and comedian Kevin Hart came to visit him on his cellblock (as the audience clung to every word), he also reminisced in detail about how he’d hand-wash his clothes because he didn’t want his stuff washed with hundreds of other inmates’ belongings. He talked about his boxers air-drying in his cell right next to the rags he used to wipe his sink and toilet down.
“[Rubin and Hart] would be like, ‘It’s not that bad,’ ” Mill said with a strange giggle. “I’m like, ‘Stop trying to make me feel good, man. This s— is terrible!’ ”
Mill didn’t just talk about prison. He took the audience there. It was to the point where every audience member could smell the staleness of a prison cell, feel the chill that only comes with penitentiary bitterness. We could hear the moans, the groans and the cries of men coming to terms with the place they sleep likely being the same place they’ll take their last breaths.
This is not to say Championships is without flaws. At 19 tracks, it’s longer than necessary. But given the current structure of the music industry — longer albums play into the streaming era’s sweet spot — the length of the album can be understood. “Almost Slipped,” for example, could’ve been scrapped. Rappers not liking “thots” isn’t exactly hip-hop’s most groundbreaking concept. Rick Ross’ use of the anti-gay slur “f—-t” on the album’s pinnacle song, “What’s Free,” is ugly, and it contradicts the song’s intended themes of uncompromised freedom.
The moment stripped attention from an otherwise sharp (albeit off-topic) verse from the MMG honcho, and had it not been for the strong verse from Mill — and, in the album’s most talked-about moment, a sharp and career-defining montage from Jay-Z — Ross would rightfully be where Kevin Hart is now.
Tryna fix the system and the way that designed it
I think they want me silenced (Shush)
Oh, say can you see, I don’t feel like I’m free …
Locked down in my cell, shackled from ankle to feet
Judge banging that gavel, turned me to a slave from a king
Another day in the big I gotta hang from a string
Just for poppin’ a wheelie My people march through the city.
But (see lyrics above) Championships is Mill’s story true and through. He’s a rose that grew from the cracked concrete of North Philadelphia. Sharpened his skills rap-battling on corners, and earned a rep as his music graduated from cyphers to mixtapes to chart-topping albums. Those bruised rose petals came with stories of losing a father before the first grade. Of forcing ends to meet when minimum wage wasn’t enough to keep a stove heated, let alone an entire house. Of constant run-ins with law enforcement that would become the story of his adult life. Championships, at its best, is a survivor’s tale.
“On Me” with the now Grammy-nominated Cardi B is tailor-made for strip coins — and the lyrics, I am a big boss b—-/ I do not come in your size, seem destined for Instagram captions heading into 2019. Along those similar lines, “Going Bad,” featuring Drake, is ordained for radio rotation and top streaming, if it isn’t already.
But aside from materialistic vices and party vibes, Championships is about the road Mill has traveled. Like some others in Philadelphia hip-hop — Beanie Sigel, Cassidy and Schoolly D, for example — Mill seemed destined to be a talent who never truly lived up to his potential. But now, it’s memories of his entire adult life that give Mill, armed with focused vision, this warranted and bright moment in the sun.
Common among those who have ever been locked up is the aforementioned fear — especially among those still on probation. Without having to dive explicitly into the fear — because it’s with them every step they take, every time they blink their eyes and every time their heart beats — they can exude or leak it. This emotion manifests across the vision boards of Championships. The system Mill bucks against on the album is also the muse that has him in new territory as an artist. It’s a disgusting gift, and an all-too-real curse.
Mill’s 2015 Dreams Worth More Than Money hit No. 1. But then the Meek Mill/Drake beef popped, and the album’s success was viewed largely via his relationship with then-girlfriend Nicki Minaj. Championships has a different energy. His post-traumatic stress is already deeply ingrained, a product of growing up in North Philly’s ghettos, wherein sleeping on the floor was safer than the bed because stray bullets have no names. On this album are details of meals Mill ate in prison that he wouldn’t feed a pet. Of the screams of inmates being raped. Of the disruptive correctional officers who make life in the belly of the beast an even more painful digestive tract than it already is.
Besides evocative lyrics, Championships is laden with monster samples from classic records: Jay-Z’s 1996 “Dead Presidents” and Phil Collins’ 1981 “In the Air Tonight,” which Mill says he first heard in the 2002 film Paid in Full. There’s also Barclay James Harvest’s 1977 “Taking Me Higher,” which was immortalized on Mobb Deep’s 2001 “Get Away,” and the Notorious B.I.G.’s 1997 “What’s Beef.” The samples, though, are chosen for both their musical excellence and their emotional palettes.
The title track is that mix of self-reflection and self-destruction that Tupac Shakur made his calling card. In prison in 1995 himself, Shakur recalled that as a child he looked forward to going to jail because it’s all he saw. A generational curse made to feel like a rite of passage. That deeply damaged mindstate played out for Mill as well:
We was kids and used to play on the step
A couple years later we flirting with the angel of death
I was 11 years old I got my hands on a TEC
When I first touched it that s— gave me a rush
My homies dying I’m like, ‘Maybe we next’
Knowing the n—-s that smoked my daddy
It just made me upset
Made me a man s— I was 5 when God gave me my test
Go to court with a court-appointed and he won’t say he objects
Now it’s you against the state
And you ain’t got no cake.
Throughout Mill’s imagery, the cold steel bars he heard close every night are omnipresent. As is the sound of his cellmate urinating — the toilet is an arm’s length away from where he rests his head. Mill is in very rare territory here. He’s a cautionary tale who gets to tell his own story — and benefit from doing so. Mill refuses to call himself an activist, but he is self-aware. I ain’t come here to preach, he notes on the title song. I just had to say something / ’Cause I’m the one with the reach.
By far, though, the most poignant theme on the album is Mill’s battle with hatred. Hatred for himself. And a hatred that lingers for individuals he holds responsible for this continuous cycle of imprisonment. Racism is part of the system. Mill didn’t have to go to prison to understand that. But what he wasn’t ready for, and what still burns in the pit of his stomach, are thoughts of the black men and women he believes conspired against him along the way.
The ins and outs of the legal system never sat right with Mill. He’d been part of it since January 2007, when he was arrested for selling crack. Had he made mistakes in his past? Absolutely. Had he always made the right decision? No. And he still remembers, as he recalled in his CRWN interview, being 18, in a courtroom, and watching the police officer who arrested him weep on the witness stand, saying he feared for his life as Mill allegedly pulled a gun on him (something Mill has been denying since the accusation). Mill remembers having seen the district attorneys, defense lawyers and judges all having lunch with each other.
But in court, none of them acted like they knew each other. Mill was offered a more lenient sentence if he apologized to officer Reginald Graham, who is black, by Judge Genece Brinkley, who is also black.
“Cops say what they want. Do what they want. I seen that s— happen to so many people, I used to be like, ‘Man, that s— is normal. I’m just gonna take that s— to trial,’ ” Mill said of the 2007 case. “When I got to court, I seen the black judge and was like she definitely not gonna believe this s—. I’m like, ‘I’m good. If she see my mugshot, she gonna ask me what happened to my face.’ She ain’t ask me s— … I got found guilty of all charges, and the rest is history. I been on probation the rest of my life.”
The mental trauma is deafening. “F— this n—a.” “I don’t f— with that n—a right there.” “I hate them n—-s.” Such sayings became commonplace soundtracks for Mill on the inside. Hate, hate, hate. “Black on black all day. We really got a system of self-hate built up in us that we not paying attention to,” Mill said during his conversation with Wilson. “Even when you go to neighborhoods and s— like that. Everybody killing each other … why we so mad at each other?”
Mill carries a reminder of this mindset with him everywhere via an iced-out likeness around his neck of his protégé Lil Snupe, who was murdered over a video game in 2013. He doesn’t really need jewelry to remind himself that his father was murdered. Or of the countless friends, and even foes, who are no longer here in the world, physically and/or mentally. The constant threat of death combined with survivor’s remorse is part of Mill’s emotional diet.
Even before he was released from prison in April, the change in Mill had been evident. He was tired, not just physically but also mentally, of a marathon in the criminal justice system he couldn’t escape. The best thing he could do was make sure his past was no one else’s future. That’s part of the bind and state of possibility Mill finds himself in. Growing into the man, the father, the agent of change and the friend he knows he can be. But still harboring the animosity and the vulnerability that made Robert Rihmeek Williams, Meek Mill.
These aren’t answers that can come about over the course of a conversation, or an album of music. Mill is still on high alert. One where freedom is fleeting and paranoia is permanent. It’s equal parts inspirational and heartbreaking. Meek Mill is lucky. And he raps, powerfully, like he knows it.