On Championships, Meek Mill’s first album out since the deluge of legal drama that consumed the vast majority of his last 12 months — to say nothing of the “rap beef” that did the same to the 12 previous and nearly overwhelmed last year’s Wins & Losses — Meek is at his best when he raps over skillfully-chopped soul samples and thunderingly dramatic opera ones. That won’t surprise anyone who’s paid even remote attention to his catalogue over he past few years, but what is surprising are the clever, sometimes subtle ways he nudges the margins of what’s worked for him in the past to find new subject matter to mine for creative content.
For instance, Meek has often rapped about prison; it’s the specter that’s hovered over the entirely his career, given he’s been on probation since he was a teenager. However, where on prior outings like 2017’s Wins & Losses and 2015’s Dreams Worth More Than Money, the threat of prison was what lingered like a ghost, ominously pressing in on the windows like a snoopy, unwanted guest, on Championships, it’s concrete. It’s not just something that could happen — it’s something that has happened, irrevocably shifting the perspective through which Meek views the trappings of success and the dangers of falling off.
“Could’ve been a lawyer until they came and shackled you / Felons on your records so them jobs ain’t gettin’ back at you,” he mourned on “Young Black America” from Wins & Losses. He’s explaining the cycle that traps young, Black men in a perpetual rotation of recidivism, but it’s all external. It’s academic; again, this is something that does happen, endlessly, but it’s not anywhere near as harrowing as the desolation that bleeds through “Trauma”: “My mama used to pray that she’d see me in Yale / It’s f*cked up she gotta see me in jail / On the visit with Lil Papi, it hurt even though it seemed to be well / They got a smoker with a key to my cell.” It’s that last, jarring detail that adds the layer of lived-in, grease-stained reality. It’s not just a ghost anymore, it’s a corpse, complete with the reeking scent of corruption and uncomfortable reminder of mortality that such things bring.
Of course, Meek’s ordeal also lends a different kind of insight. He’s got the details down now, yes, but he also understands the bigger picture, how the pieces fit together. On the Notorious B.I.G.-sampling “What’s Free?” alongside Jay-Z, one of Meek’s biggest advocates both throughout his incarceration and in his resulting reform endeavors, Meek details the machinations of the penal system and its unfair workings and his own mission to dismantle it: “When you bring my name up to the judge tell him facts / Tell him how we fundin’ all these kids to go to college / Tell him how we ceasin’ all these wars, stoppin’ violence / Tryna fix the system and the way they designed it / I think they want me silenced.” Then completes the hat trick, tying the theme of the Biggie original to the frivolity of the feud between himself and his former lyrical rival and drawing a clear distinction: “Is we beefin’ or rappin’? I might just pop up with Drizzy.”