Photo: Prince Williams / WireImage via Getty Images
  /  06.26.2018

If Meek Mill’s life were a roller coaster, it would scare away even the pluckiest park attendants. That he manages to say, not just calm, but sane, is worthy of an achievement award. His recent jail stint has put him in a unique place in pop culture, where he’s more than a role model for kids, not just because of his journey, but now because of his beliefs. If recent events are any indicator, Meek has finally shed his moneyed skin and has embraced a conscious world of meaningful raps and presence.

For the better of eight years, Meek Mill has been one of rap’s most dominant forces. When he comes onto a track, it’s loud, brutish, and grating. There’s nothing overly idiosyncratic about his raps aside for the energy that drives him, and listeners, to new heights. Prior to fame, he was a block boy with battle scars, rapping as an escape from drab surroundings. He was Meek Millz then, verbally abusing those that stepped to him; videos on YouTube paint him as a deadly word assassin, visibly startling opponents that stepped to him. He became ingrained in the criminal system at 18 for illegally possessing a firearm and assaulting a policeman, something that he’s adamantly claimed in the past didn’t happen.

Probation sprung from this case and placed a leash on the growing star. As his career grew and mutated, he was yanked at the chain by presiding Judge Genece Brinkly for infraction after infraction. The most outstanding of his violations came on March 11, 2017 with the alleged assault of two pedestrians. On November 6, 2017, he was sentenced to two to four years of prison. On April 24, 2018, Meek was released and made a grand return to the public, and the rap game. But this Meek’s different. His purpose, the way that he moves in interviews, even his very presence, feel refined and streamlined. And that very change doesn’t just come from judicial woes, but also from years of growth that he’s done before our very eyes — even if we haven’t given it the proper attention.

Throughout problem after problem, and sneaking through the judicial landmine to avoid trouble (his manager believes that Meek has missed out on millions thanks to the law), his music almost never reflected his tortured existence. Flamers– era Meek — dropping four hungry mixtapes between 2008 and 2010 — rapped with a sense of desperation and anxiety. He’d been living in death and destruction too long. The glimpse at a new life on the other side made him put every ounce of sweat and energy into each bar. He linked up T.I. after meeting Charlie Mack, President of 215 Aphillyated Records in 2008, impressing the Atlanta-bred rapper which ultimately led him to signing with his Grand Hustle label imprint. But legal problems muddied things on both artists’ ends. Meek parted ways in mid-2010 with Grand Hustle and signed with Rick Ross on the latter’s own imprint Maybach Music Group with Wale.

This second era of Meek’s career was defined by celebration. No more of the life that would be snatched from him in an instant. His raps moved from doom and gloom; now they were lavish and rich, smelling of caviar. His first single was “Tupac Back” featuring Rick Ross, and even with the sinister booming 808s, Meek’s rhymes cut through the tension with hedonistic flair. His first solo album, Dreams and Nightmares, repurposed his struggle, turning the lemons into lemonade. Lead single “Amen” is perhaps the happiest Meek track in existence, giving it up to God for the changes in his life because of his hard work.

Meek established Dreamchasers Records in fall of 2012, looking to continue the spirit of finding hardworking young talent to guide to the next level. In April of 2013, he found some of himself in Lil Snupe, a similarly gutter rapper that came from hard times, 17 years old, but as calm and collected as a man twice his age. Snupe was gunned down in June, just two months after. This hit Meek like a truck, his next mixtape Dreamchasers 3 reflecting on the pain and turmoil he experienced when he received that call on the track “Lil Nigga Snupe.”

His next album, Dreams Worth More Than Money, was a little more down-to-Earth. The celebration had become nothing more than an escape from the emotional pitfalls of his current reality. Follow-up album Wins and Losses came two years later and showed some true emotional evolution from Meek. From a rap beef with Drake that stripped him of his foundation and further troubles with Genece Brinkley’s version of the law, Meek had been humbled by life. The fame and freedom that he’d taken for granted could be snatched as quickly as his life. On his third album, Meek sounded jaded and full of wisdom — even in feel-good tracks like “Whatever You Need” and “Made It From Nothing.” “Young Black America” offered Meek’s most unvarnished look at social commentary yet, exploring the similarities between black-on-black crime, the Ku Klux Klan, and much more.

Meek’s first release this year has been “Stay Woke” featuring Miguel, and it represents what hopefully will be a new, and authentic, direction for him. The smooth, emotional production concedes control to Meek as he raps with the hunger of his pre-fame days, but its purpose here is to spill his story and lay understanding upon the audience so that they’ll understand him and, more importantly, learn to avoid similar mistakes because of America’s determination to dismantle the black community. In an emotional performance at the BET Awards, Meek drew spotlight to police brutality that happens in our country and kneeling during the national anthem, two topics that have split our country down the line. While performing, he wore a hoodie that paid tribute to Jimmy Wopo and XXXTentacion, two recent rappers that became victims to gun violence.

This kind of statement by a rapper of Meek’s caliber is just what the country needs. Historically, rappers often have fallen into one of two categories: conscious, or everything else. In 2013, after hearing Kendrick Lamar’s competitive call to action for rappers on Big Sean’s “Control,” Meek, during an interview with Philadelphia’s Hot 99 Radio Station, gave a slightly condescending response that showed his disdain for conscious rap. “I’ma tell ’em in a rap: y’all can run that backpack, I’ma run these streets.” Now, it looks like his tone has changed. Meek may be moving into that “backpack” lane due to a series of incidents that have pushed him to the point of no return. He’ll join the likes of J. Cole, Kendrick Lamar, Big K.R.I.T. and a select few others that use their platform for more than just turn-up music, but to draw spotlight and analyze aspects of social existence that impact our community.

For Meek, this move comes at the best time. His latest jail stint really drew attention to the shit show that is probation and parole. Having to walk on egg shells for something that happened a decade ago, especially as a black man with a target on your back, is something that no one should do. From celebrities to everyday people around the world, scores of protests, both in person and through social media, ignited the internet. Even Drake, who clearly had fun with their prior beef, showed his support for him through music. Meek became a symbol for the change needed in the country for the evolution of the justice system. When he was released, and then showed up at Game 5 of the Philadelphia 76ers and Miami Heat playoff series, the world roared with praise.

Now, Meek is arguably one of the most important rappers in the game. As he inevitably moves towards a new album, “Stay Woke” makes sense to release as the lead single because of its proximity to Meek’s experience, and that’s what everyone is obsessed with right now. But hopefully “Stay Woke” is more than a ploy to draw in fans and, in actuality, is a paradigm shift towards rap with substance that’ll explore the country’s deplorable conditions for people of color and others equally tangled in the criminal system. Meek’s music would become more than the soundtrack to party shenanigans. His voice is already booming and blood-curdling, cutting through whatever else is happening. Channeling that energy into what’s wrong with our country will draw a response of stunning magnitude.

Current rappers like Lil Pump, Lil Yachty, and Playboi Carti are integral aspects of hip-hop culture because of their creativity and penchant for weirdness. Their beat may not be social awareness, but what they bring to the table helps to keep the balance, with traditional artists like Joey Bada$$ and JID holding down the lyrical fort. Meek Mill is a tad bit older, but respected by all parties. His reach is what connects generations. Also serving as a mentor figure to much of the new school, he could incite change that could be generational in scope. With Meek advising the world to “Stay Woke,” I finally believe that it will happen.



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