America Is Brutal And Meek Mill Is A Hero
Cover Story: Meek Mill is one of our generation’s greatest street rappers, but can he thrive in the mainstream?
Meek Mill leans forward into the glow of his computer screen, his expression unreadable behind a pair of gold sunglasses. It’s April, well after two in the morning, and we’re packed into a narrow recording studio in Burbank, California, the same studio where the 28-year-old rapper from Philadelphia has spent most other nights this year. The building is hidden in a residential neighborhood behind a high, automatic gate; the room reeks of berry-flavored blunt wraps and has a murky, claustrophobic atmosphere, like what I imagine it must feel like to be aboard a submarine, albeit one with a bar stocked with bottles of Ciroc and bowls of red grapes. Members of Meek’s entourage, old friends who he now semi-employs for a variety of unspecific tasks, drift in and out of sleep in the next room.
The same two tracks have been playing on loop for several minutes, as Meek and Nicki Minaj, his girlfriend, argue gently over which song should be released as a single from his sophomore album, Dreams Worth More Than Money, which he’s scheduled to complete within the week. Because the couple can’t seem to agree, Nicki, who is dressed in a black T-shirt that says “FEELING MYSELF,” cheerfully suggests that they poll the room. The producer, Bangladesh, crouched over his MacBook, cocks his head to the side; the engineer, Cruz, who has been dropping ice cubes into the base of an enormous hookah, puts down his tongs.
For the single, Meek wants an irrefutable pop song. “I can see a crowd of people singing it,” he says of his pick, which they’re tentatively calling “Bad.” He waves his lighter in the air and sways as it plays through. For her part, Nicki has been pleading with him to trust her proven pop instincts, which are leaning firmly toward the other option, “All Eyes on You.” “Your voice sounds ill, the flow sounds ill,” she says. “This is going to get played on the radio. It’s a no-brainer.” Both songs are slow-burning, sensual ballads that seem slightly at odds with Meek’s traditionally louder, brasher sound, but this is part of the project of the new record, as he explains it: to present an “older, more experienced Meek Mill.”
Dreams Worth More Than Money was originally scheduled to be released last year, but it was pushed back by Meek’s label, Atlantic, after he was sentenced to six months in prison. (He has been on probation since 2008 for a gun charge, and was sentenced last July for not communicating with the court to its satisfaction.) Though he admits he’s “getting anxious” about the looming deadline, he’s clearly not thrilled at the idea of finishing it via focus group. “Only one person in the room knows how to make a Meek Mill record,” he says, stating the obvious. Still, he plays along.
“All in favor of the first single being ‘Bad,’ put your hands up,” Nicki says, standing up to count the votes. No one moves. “All in favor of ‘All Eyes on You’?” She is persuasive. Making hip-hop work in the pop world is her specialty, after all. Hands come up, one by one. “Oh my god, Rihmeek,” Nicki groans exaggeratedly, invoking Meek’s middle name for effect. “Every hand went up, baby. Now you got a roomful of honest opinions. You can take it or leave it.”
He leaves it. Either betrayed or bemused—it’s always difficult to tell—Meek is done. He turns back to his computer screen, waving off the vote as pointless. “Honest opinions is cool,” he says. “But my mind’s made up.” He laughs a little, and at that, at least for the night, the conversation is over.
One afternoon, we take a break from the studio to shoot photos for this magazine and drive north up the Pacific Coast Highway in a black limousine van, heading for a secluded cove in Malibu called El Matador Beach. Opposite the sea are endless rows of palms trees, adobe mansions, and scattered construction vehicles lining the base of the Santa Monica Mountains. In the van, I sit beside Meek’s personal stylist, Sade, who tells me that Meek rarely wears the same shoes twice anymore—especially his Timberlands, she says, which are “one wear” only. Meek is stretched out in the seat behind us, fast asleep and snoring lightly with his mouth open. Occasionally we hit a bump, and he wakes up with a start.
Meek is over a decade into his career, which began back in Philadelphia, where he was a local celebrity well before anyone elsewhere knew his name. His style, since the beginning, has been excitable and assertive, honed over years of raucous neighborhood rap battles (“My voice gives off energy,” as he puts it). The support of Rick Ross, who enlisted Meek in 2011 for his gaudy, era-defining Maybach Music Group empire, helped bring on a series of hits—nationally impactful, ubiquitous singles like “Tupac Back,” “Ima Boss,” “Amen,” and “Burn,” songs that spawned controversies, tribute freestyles, poor imitations, and new catchphrases. Still, Meek retained his sense of reckless momentum and immediacy, and his writerly insistence on showing rather than telling. (He wasn’t “arrested” on 2012’s exhilarating, virtually percussion-less “Dreams and Nightmares (Intro),” for example; he was In the back of the paddy wagon, cuffs locked on wrists.)
These days he divides his time between Los Angeles and Miami, living entirely out of luxury hotels. At the moment, he’s staying in a five-star establishment in Beverly Hills, where the décor is a disorienting maze of mirrors and black tile, and the room service menu includes bottles of champagne in the $400 range. When he’s in album mode, he spends every night in the studio, usually working until seven or eight in the morning and sleeping until mid-afternoon. In the daylight, he often appears exhausted and physically drained. Of his three-year-old son, who still lives in Philly, he admits that he sees him “not as much as I should, but we make it worth it.”
Meek isn’t the only one anxious to finish his album. On the trip to Malibu, he is surrounded, as he is most days, by a small cadre of management and marketing professionals, each of them with a stake in his career. There are representatives from his management firm, Roc Nation; his record label, Atlantic Records; and Maybach Music Group, a subsidiary of Atlantic; plus his own longtime manager, Phil Smith, an older, no-nonsense problem-solver from back home who wears thick glasses, a white T-shirt, and seems perpetually, mysteriously tense.
We park alongside the highway and walk to the edge of a steep cliff overlooking the beach. Seagulls seem to be flying directly underneath us. Meek’s good friend Chino Braxton—a spry 18-year-old professional supercross rider who Meek discovered online and signed to his imprint, Dream Chasers, as its first and only athlete—peers over the cliff’s edge and grimaces at the ocean. “That’s some scary shit,” he says. Meek rubs his hands together, kicks some pebbles over the edge, and agrees.
Meek descends the winding clay path down to the beach below, which is dotted with caves and huge, alien rock formations. Saint-like in pure white, he’s photographed as he walks—not only by us, but by everyone else who happens to be at the beach today. Young teenagers with iPhones, couples relaxing on bright towels—everyone snaps a photo. Even those who don’t immediately recognize him seem to know that they should. As if to strike back against the flurry of amateur paparazzi, Meek pulls out his own phone and takes a picture of a couple posing for wedding photos on a grassy outcropping. Later that day, I notice he’s posted it on his Instagram, with the caption, “They getting married on a hill in Malibu.” By the next morning, for whatever reason, it will receive over 40,000 likes.
“It ain’t really time to get married yet. We’re still learning each other, feeling each other out.” —Meek Mill
Meek has been established as an artist for some time now, well known to faithful rap fans as a demanding stylist with great promise, but it is only in the last several months that he has emerged as something else, a public figure on the national stage. Though it seems cynical to say so, this can partially be attributed to his prison sentence: his months behind bars only added to the sense of anticipation and aura surrounding his music and also helped to clarify, in the minds of his audience, that there is something solemn and significant at stake for Meek in all of this. It gave his career a narrative arc, however tragic or unstable. It also gave him ample time to consider his goals. In prison, one of his friends told me, Meek “never mentioned the money or the endorsements he lost. What he talked about was the way he was going to handle his business when he got out. He said he was going to make it bigger than ever, and that’s what he did.”
Since his release, Meek has also become a person of interest to the tabloid press, who have been enthusiastically tracking his movements with half-true stories about parties he threw and grudges he holds. Most recently, his relationship with Nicki Minaj has been the subject of rigorous speculation, with various outlets reporting that a ring he bought her in Miami was an engagement ring. It wasn’t. “It’s definitely real,” he says of their relationship, “but it ain’t really time to get married yet. We’re still learning each other, feeling each other out.” Not that it matters: the story has been printed. Meek’s grandmother has been calling him about that one (“Whatever she sees on TV, she believes,” he says), and other celebrities, most notably Drake, have started congratulating them publicly, lending credence to the idea.
From the perspective of his label, anything that keeps Meek in the news is a net positive. He could always use the help. Meek’s first studio album, 2012’s Dreams and Nightmares, debuted at #2 on the Billboard charts and went on to sell a few hundred thousand copies, but it wasn’t the blockbuster some had hoped for. His singles have had extraordinary reach but not always in a manner conducive to chart success or to the label making money; the YouTube views are there, that is, but the songs haven’t always made it to iTunes in time to monetize the hype. His income comes mostly from touring and promotional deals, like product placement in music videos and his personalized, gold chrome-painted Monster headphones. You could say he embodies the challenges and contradictions of the present-day music industry’s relationship with street rap: Meek has made a fortune for himself, but it remains to be seen whether he can do the same for Atlantic Records.
In Malibu, as the sun goes down, Meek storms the beach with furious confidence, stomping on sand castles and leaping off sharp rocks at the edge of the surf. Someone has brought a portable speaker along to set the mood, and the rumbling beats only add to the sense that we are disrupting everyone’s peaceful evening. In his music, this is Meek’s default setting: disruption, a kind of irrepressible, fluid abandon. It’s there in his personality, too, but only in flashes. Back at the top of the cliff, Meek notices a small rabbit in the dry brush. “See that rabbit right there?” he asks us, his eyes glowing. “What color is it?” asks Chino, suddenly excited. It’s brown. Meek makes his approach slowly, carefully, and takes a photo with his phone. Then with both hands, he mimes a rifle, lines up the rabbit in his sights, and fires.
A self-produced 2010 documentary about Meek’s life, released to accompany his mixtape Mr. Philadelphia, covers the subject of his father’s murder in some depth. It was South Philadelphia, 1989. Meek, who was born Robert Williams, was a toddler. His uncle Ronald is interviewed in the film and describes his brother as the “black sheep of the family.” Ronald was at work when he got the phone call telling him his brother had been shot. It had apparently occurred during an attempted robbery, though the details have remained unclear over the years. Ronald drove to the scene and found a crowd surrounding his brother’s body, which lay in the street, “motionless.” He remembers it vividly, remembers seeing the “bottom of his sneaker hanging out from under that white blanket.”
Meek’s mother, Kathy Williams, moved him and his older sister, Nasheema, to North Philly, where they lived in a small, three-bedroom apartment on Berks Street, not far from Temple University. Kathy had grown up in poverty, her mother having passed away when she was young. To support the family, she cut hair and worked other jobs as they presented themselves, “boosting” from the supermarket when they didn’t. At home, Meek was shy and rarely spoke. Growing up, he felt the pull of South Philly, where most of his extended family still lived—where his father had lived. As he’d later put it, jarringly, in the 2008 song “First of All,” I fell in love with the streets I lost my dad to.
As a kid, Meek became acquainted with another of his dad’s brothers, a pioneering local DJ known as Grandmaster Nell. If you were to plug the details of Meek’s life into a hero’s journey structure, Nell would be the early mentor, the wise guru. He looks the part, with an oddly shaped beard and sage’s demeanor that give him the aura of a desert mystic. Nell was a legendary figure in the Philadelphia hip-hop scene of the late-’80s, an innovator on the turntables and a crucial influence on DJ Jazzy Jeff, who, with fellow Philly native Will Smith, would win the first-ever Grammy for Best Rap Performance, in 1989. Meek remembers wandering into his grandmother’s basement and seeing spray-paint all over the walls, the remnants of Nell’s parties. He and his cousins would sneak into his uncle’s room, he told me, and “he’d have all the equipment in there—the turntables, the big speakers—and we’d turn it all on.”
“Everybody don’t always make it, but there’s always that guy back in the hood that was the shit and inspired the people that did make it.” —Meek Mill
By the time Meek started trying to rap himself, the landscape of Philly hip-hop had changed, darkened, shifting toward a model of rappers as gritty, strong-willed realists, morally complicit in the fallen environment they document. In the late ’90s and early 2000s, the Philadelphia rappers everyone idolized were Beanie Sigel and his State Property crew, including locals Freeway and Peedi Crakk. There was also Major Figgas, Gillie Da Kid, Diamond District, Chic Raw, and Vodka. “Everybody don’t always make it,” Meek says of his hometown scene, “but there’s always that guy back in the hood that was the shit and inspired the people that did make it.” If his uncle was that guy for The Fresh Prince and Jazzy Jeff, early aughts street rappers like Chic Raw and Vodka were those guys for Meek. He watched their DVDs religiously and emulated them.
You can find videos online of Meek’s early teenage years, when he would battle-rap on street corners in a hoodie, his hair pulled back into cornrows. “I was just learning my flow,” he says of this period, and he was also learning to write. He’d stay up well past midnight filling thick notebooks—“rap books”—with phrases and verses that he’d later draw on. “Everything was about competition,” he says of his battling years, “and it helped shape some us growing up. It makes you ambitious as a kid.” He formed a group called Bloodhoundz, and they’d buy blank CDs and jewel cases at Kinkos, encouraging friends to burn copies to spread around. “If you hear the quality of it, it’s terrible,” he says. “But people was feeling me at the time. That was some raw shit, spending our last money putting a mixtape out.”
Meek’s greatest leap forward came in the couple of years spanning his solo Flamers mixtape series, the first of which was released in the summer of 2008. The centerpiece was a skittish, hypnotic song called “In My Bag.” It was his first real regional hit; he made a music video for the song and even worried briefly that he couldn’t top its success. It led directly to his meeting the Philly music scene impresario Charlie Mack, immortalized in the Fresh Prince and Jazzy Jeff song “Charlie Mack (1st Out of the Limo),” who’s credited with discovering Boyz II Men (and now Meek). “He was with me when I was a kid,” Meek says of his former manager, with whom he parted ways amicably a few years ago. “He raised me through the game.” From the release of the first Flamers volume, it took Meek roughly two years to go from a period he now remembers as a time of “black-eyed peas and hot dogs for dinner” to his local reign, when he was suddenly “Mr. Philadelphia,” the hottest in the city. Looking back, you can actually pinpoint this transition, the very moment Meek realized he could do this forever: he marked it by cutting his hair. He’d always worn it in braids, but he never would again. “It was time to start fitting in, get cleaned up,” he says of this decision. “I was about to be on TV.”
One night, Meek and I meet up at a seafood restaurant not far from his hotel, where we are joined at the last minute by Rick Ross, his longtime mentor and boss at Maybach Music Group. The place is dimly lit and pretentious, the kind of restaurant where waiters make a point to say “quite so” rather than “yes.” Flowing across the length of the floor is a glass-covered stream filled with live koi. We climb the stairs to a table on the second floor and run into T.I., who is dressed nondescriptly in a gray hoodie, and who throws open his arms to pull in Meek for a bear hug. It’s the sort of coincidence that might seem more startling were we not in a five-star restaurant in Beverly Hills.
Like most people Meek has crossed paths with lately, T.I. excitedly congratulates him on his engagement. “I ain’t engaged,” Meek says sheepishly, but T.I. isn’t having any of it. “You never asked her, ‘Will you be my girlfriend?’ But she is your girlfriend,” he says. “You may not have asked her, ‘Will you marry me?’ But you are engaged.” Meek shrugs, unable to argue with this logic. “I’ve said my part,” T.I. says, backing away with his hands up. “As long as you know what’s going on.”
It was T.I. who originally tried to sign Meek to his Grand Hustle imprint in 2008, before his own prison sentence ensured that he wouldn’t be around to shepherd the younger rapper in the ways he needed. This is where Rick Ross stepped in. Ross models himself as a paternalistic mogul, a self-made empire-builder in the tradition of Uncle Luke or Birdman. He credits Twitter with his discovery of Meek. Stopping in Philadelphia for a concert, Ross asked his Twitter followers to recommend a local artist he should work with, and the response was rapid and near unanimous. “At that moment,” Ross tells me, “you would’ve thought Meek was the only rapper in Philly.” The local DJ Cosmic Kev connected the two of them, and to Meek’s surprise, Ross followed through, eventually offering him a contract.
“Ross changed my life. He changed my whole family’s lives,” Meek says over a plate of roasted crab and garlic noodles. “Ross met my grandma a lot of times. She thinks Rick Ross is her boyfriend. She’s like, ‘Where my baby at?’” Ross smiles. “That’s my baby girl,” he says, taking a bite out of a crab puff. When Meek returned to prison last year, Ross visited him. He recalls trudging along the fence with Meek, who wore a yellow jumpsuit and was openly despondent. “I heard his disappointment,” Ross says. “The rage he felt that he couldn’t communicate his situation in the courtroom. I remember telling him, ‘You’re not going to make this a personal fight.’” As they walked the yard, the other inmates noticed the two rappers together and began banging on the walls in tribute. “You just started hearing that beating go around the whole building,” Ross says. The guards requested that he leave.
Meek remains frustrated by the way he’s been treated by the system. Even the original gun charge, which has haunted him now for years, is a matter of context as he sees it. “My dad got killed in South Philly,” he explains. “Ain’t nobody save him. The cops didn’t save him, and I don’t even think about the cops saving me, so I just took action to protect myself.” Ever since then, he says, he’s been trapped in a structure that makes no effort to appreciate his sacrifices, his worth, or his ambition. “When you’re telling me I’m not shit,” he says, “you got to look at it from my point of view. I always wanted to say this to the judge: ‘Think about your son. If your son grew up in the neighborhood, and his father was dead, but he’s able to rise up above it all and start taking care of you, your mother, and your whole family? He’s taking responsibility.’ So when you got a white lady in a courtroom, who don’t know you from a can of paint, saying I’m not shit and I need to be put in jail? That’s offensive to me. I look at that as racism. I take that personally.”
This is a feeling embedded in Meek’s music, a bleak awareness that his own society doesn’t value him. It’s most upfront in songs like 2013’s “Lil Nigga Snupe,” a chilling track inspired by the murder of the 18-year-old Louisiana rapper Lil Snupe, who, like Chino Braxton, had been discovered by Meek and signed to his label. Instead of pedantry or certainty, Meek offers a profound, deeply human ambiguity: So what’s a nigga ‘sposed to do?/ Tell ‘em put the guns down or tell lil nigga shoot?/ Cause they’ll do the same to me, do the same shit to you. It’s a question that’s often just below the surface in Meek’s music: what are we supposed to do?
The challenge for Meek, going forward, will be to continue producing material like “Snupe”—difficult songs addressing difficult issues that resonate with the community that propelled him to success in the first place—while also reaching for the kind of mass pop-cultural relevance that he, Nicki, and Atlantic Records all believe him to be capable of. Judging by the portion of the album he played in the studio, Meek doesn’t see these worlds as contradictory. There are clear pop efforts, like the two songs that Meek and Nicki argued over that night in the studio, but they are part of a larger texture, no more or less important than anything else. Confessional, wounding songs recount providing for his mother and sister; songs with halting, jazz-like piano riffs and drums fall over themselves and never entirely cohere; hazy, impressionistic ballads feature hooks sung by Future; and there’s an operatic anthem that Meek says he likes because it reminds him of ancient Rome.
“Monster,” a single Meek put out this past winter, finds him reflecting on the darker implications of his current situation—nocturnal, rich, and restless. The money turned me to a monster, he says repeatedly on the hook. I ask him about this song at dinner, and he tells me that he means the sentiment “in a good and bad way. Being who I am, in my position, you can’t just be nice. You have to give people some direction. You got to be a monster.” I tell him this seems surprisingly dark, and he nods. Rick Ross, reaching across the table for another crab puff, agrees. “It’s all dark,” he says.
When Meek needs a refuge from the pressure of the studio and his bourgeoning public life, he turns to dirt bikes. His cousin gave him his first dirt bike in his early teens, a green Kawasaki KX80, and he’s been street-riding ever since. Fans have come to associate him with riding, illegal on the street but increasingly popular in urban areas all over the country. This past March, on the night of his “Welcome Back” concert in Philadelphia, around 70 dirt bikes and ATVs were confiscated by the Philadelphia Police, who had gotten wind that a “ride out” was being held in Meek’s honor. Almost anytime he travels now, including during a recent trip to the Bahamas, he requests that someone find him a bike.
One afternoon in L.A., still bleary-eyed from the studio session the night before, Meek and Chino rent two Yamaha four-wheeler ATVs and have them driven downtown to an industrial neighborhood in the Arts District. Meek, who I had watched earlier in the afternoon pay cash for the $2,000 jacket he’s wearing, grabs a can of gasoline and pours it not at all carefully into the vehicle’s tank, spilling some over the edges. Chino, grinning in a way that seems alarming, grabs one of the ATV’s grips and starts revving the engine in encouragement. At the slightest smell of gasoline, Meek’s stress and fatigue seem instantly diminished.
They chose this block because it’s relatively desolate (“I don’t think cops go down there,” was how they phrased it), but it turns out to be a common route for semi-trucks. As Meek and Chino get used to the ATVs, racing them quickly up and down the street, they begin weaving in and out of the lumbering trucks. They get increasingly brazen, driving doughnuts that leave wide black orbs of burnt rubber in the pavement. Placing their knees firmly on the backs of the seats, they pull up their handlebars until the ATVs stand vertically on their back wheels. Teenagers and construction workers gather to watch, taking photos with their phones.
After about an hour, a group of six or seven other riders pull up on their own bikes. At first, Meek seems wary. (“Usually when you run into some dudes you don’t know in a back lot, it’s about something,” he will tell me later.) But they reveal themselves as fans, saying they’d seen Meek riding on Instagram moments before and recognized from the photos that he must have been nearby. Soon the street fills up with fumes and roaring engines and blurred movement. It’s chaos, and at the center of it all is Meek, by this time completely awake and in his element, waving his arms like the conductor of a dissonant symphony. He smiles bigger than I have ever seen him smile, and then he hops on the back of Chino’s ATV and they speed off around the corner, leaving the rest of us in a cloud of sparks and dust.