Meek Mill is the closest thing that rap’s current generation has to a superhero: no rapper of this decade has epitomized, or documented, the rags-to-riches story quite like he has. Because of that, he’s the artist most likely to help sway the minds of his younger peers and admirers with what he chooses to share with the world. Over the years, through his handful of stints in jail due to probation violation, fans and listeners have criticized him for not making those bouts more prevalent in his music, instead of relying on bars about Rolex’s and Roll Royce Wraiths.
It’s a fair criticism.
Meek has never been one to shy away from speaking about the toughest parts of his life. Those stories, coupled with his success, are what have helped position him as the blueprint for what kids from the most neglected corners of Black America should aspire to. But those accounts have always come in spurts. On 2015’s Dreams Worth More Than Money, “Ambitionz” saw a paranoid Meek trying to regroup after six months of incarceration, and in 2016, DC4’s “Shine” displayed a gain in self-awareness as he smartened up to the ways that people might try to bait him into more trouble. Then, on last year’s Wins & Losses — which featured more introspective and analytical tracks than any of his previous albums — Meek put a magnifying glass on the tragic fate that is virtually predetermined for many Black youths in “Young Black America” with a tender hook from The-Dream.
Those moments have been so poignant and soul-serving for listeners, that they’ve amplified a yearning for a more mature Meek, a version of himself that puts uplifting the community and commentary about prison reform over his own worldly desires. In ways, that desire has been unfair to Robert Rihmeek Williams, the person, more than to his rap moniker. Studies have shown that experiencing prison has a profound effect on human anatomy, including an increase in the amount of stress hormones the body develops. Those effects and experiences being broadcasted out to millions along with probable feelings of regret are enough to make someone harbor pain in a way that is detrimental to their wellbeing. So, the fact that Meek has ever felt encouraged to share anything with the public is a miracle.
The last time the Philadelphia rapper was released from prison in April for (questionably) violating probation once more, he was scooped up by the owner of his hometown 76ers, Michael Rubin, in a helicopter and went straight to courtside of the team’s playoff game. It was something you’d only see in a movie. And it was followed by appearances on NBC Dateline and penning opinion pieces for the New York Times about prison reform. Meek Mill started to embrace the responsibility that fans had been asking for through bars in his real life — when he got ready to.
The best example of that growth in musical form is reflected on the title track of his newly released album Championships, the most balanced piece of work that the rapper has put out to date. The Dario Beats-produced song samples the saxophone play on Toney Fountaine’s 1987 song “I Found The Girl,” laying the groundwork for Meek’s preferred sound to open up. In its four minutes, “Championships” covers opioid addiction in his neighborhood, how easily innocent children turn into hardened criminals for survival, the internalized pain of not having a father, and the inevitable loss of friends during incarceration.
In the song’s first verse Meek asks, “Was dead broke but rich in soul, was we really that poor? / Was we really that dumb? 'Cause we carry a gun / And every nigga in my neighborhood carryin' one / 'Cause we had nightmares of our mamas got to bury her son.” Though the questions feel rhetorical, what sticks is that they dually translate to Meek looking inward to figure out his own life. And if viewed that way, it’s fitting that the song is, in ways, structured like a beginning-to-end: from when child’s play turns to gunplay and to when it’s usually too late by the time you realize that you’ve been sold an incomplete dream, one that quickly strips you of your freedom and wellbeing.
“Championships” is especially potent in its detail and conviction. It’s commonplace for street artists to rap about incarceration, disloyal friends, and having a trying past but there are ways in which Meek accentuates these situations with needed specificity to drive them home. Lines like, “Go to court with a court appointed and he won't say he objects,” drives awareness to how the lack of funds makes it easy for poor people to wind up in the prison system; “Mama told me not to do it but I did it / Now I'm locked up in a prison / Callin' mama like I shouldn't have did it,” touches on the shame of letting a parent down; “Victims of the system like a rain drop in the ocean,” beautifully illustrates how many people are ruined by the prison experience.
The song is not just successful for its content — the timing of a song like “Championships” is equally responsible for why it feels like such an important and monumental moment in Meek Mill’s career. If he’d released the same song three years ago, without assuming the position of an elder statesmen so deeply invested in the possibility of his successors evading the roadblocks he’s hit, it wouldn’t have landed the same. There is an urgency and sense of liberation on “Championships” that could not exist without Meek Mill experiencing what he has within this past year. And the fact that he — and only he — was ready to share those lessons makes lines like, “And I ain't come here to preach / I just had to say somethin' 'cause I'm the one with the reach” land on much firmer ground.