Most hip-hop fans—especially the ones who are more than three decades deep at this point—have come to expect a certain level of political incorrectness from their favorite artists. It’s always a delicate dance when deciding where you’re gonna draw your line, and then which artists crossed that line to the point where you can’t listen anymore. We make excuses when the beats and rhymes are that good, when they feel sustaining and affirming in so many undeniable ways. And so, yes. There are a few cringy moments on Meek Mill’s otherwise mesmerizing and introspective “Championships.” But this offering is by far the best one of the year. It’s a masterful paradox of ideas and rhythms, with songs that are as personal as they are political, and beats that knock just as much as they soothe.
Robert Rihmeek Williams felt like he had something to prove. After six years of career ups (2012’s “Dreams and Nightmares”) and downs (Drake’s 2015 “Back to Back”), Meek was clearly a worthy contender, even if he wasn’t finding his name on any favorite rapper lists. But it was his fight with the criminal justice system that finally lit a fire in Meek, fueled him to prove his doubters wrong and create the best music of his career.
The Philly rapper spent five months behind bars this year for a “parole violation.” Then in November, a judge sentenced him to two to four years in prison for that violation, but the Pennsylvania Supreme Court stepped in and ordered the lower court to grant Meek bail immediately. He expressed his relief on Twitter when news of his release broke: “I’d like to thank God, my family and all my public advocates for their love, support and encouragement during this difficult time,” he wrote. “While the past five months have been a nightmare, the prayers, visits, calls, letters and rallies have helped me stay positive.”
It didn’t stop there for Meek, who made it his mission to speak out for criminal justice reform. “My crime?” he asked in an op-ed for The New York Times, “Popping a wheelie on a motorcycle in Manhattan. Even though the charge was dismissed in a New York City court, a Philadelphia-based judge still deemed my interaction with the police to be a technical violation of my probation—stemming from a 2007 arrest—and sentenced me to two to four years in prison despite the fact that I didn’t commit a crime,” Meek continued.
The rapper funnels that knowledge, experience and fuck-the-system attitude into songs like the album’s reflective title track. “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,” Meek rhymes. “Now I’m locked up in a prison / Calling my mama like ‘I shouldn’ta did it’ / Watch my dreams shatter in an instant / I’m on a visit posing for the picture / Like I’m going for my prom or suttin’ / Like I ain’t facing time or suttin.”
Meek shines again on “What’s Free,” where he holds his own next to legends Jay-Z and Rick Ross, both of whom murder this Tarik Azzouz and StreetRunner-produced track. It’s not okay when Ross says, “Purple hair got them fa**ots on your back,” but Jay quickly cuts through that hateful ignorance with lines like, “They gave us pork and pig intestines / Shit you discarded that we ingested / We made the project the way you came back / Reinvested and gentrified it / Took nigga’s sense of pride / How’s that free?”
Drake and Meek reunite and squash any remnants of animosity on “Going Bad,” a club-ready bop that is celebratory and on some grown man, money before beef type of shit. Stellar appearances from R&B’s new girl Ella Mai, 21 Savage, Cardi B and Future (to name a few) round out the all-star lineup of guests on the album.
Things take a dark turn on “Trauma” when Meek reflects on the pain that haunts him the most. He sounds lost when he raps, “Watching a Black woman take my freedom / Almost made me hate my people,” but maybe that’s the point. We are witnessing a man who has been through hell and is taking us on his journey as he searches for truth and redemption.
His words can be infuriating, but mostly they’re uncomfortable and illuminating. Meek is a champion, yes. But please be clear: He is not here to play any games.
More of Shani’s Favorites:
TV Show: “I’m Dying Up Here”
Movie: “Black Panther”
Artist: Cardi B
Me looking at the menu knowing damn well imma get the same thing i always get.. pic.twitter.com/nYGSYq4aPk
— John Ross III (@WatchJRoss) March 23, 2018