Over the past few weeks, we’ve seen the criminal justice system reconsider how it has treated rapper Meek Mill for most of his adult life. Larry Krasner, district attorney in Meek’s native Philadelphia, banned the officer who arrested Meek in 2007 from taking a stand after finding “several acts of corruption” on the officer’s record. Krasner also said that he would be “unopposed” to Meek’s release from prison on bail. A week later Pennsylvania governor Tom Wolf stood with Krasner, tweeting, “Our criminal justice system is in need of repair.” To see these elected officials join the ranks of Jay-Z and Beyonce, who cry #FreeMeek in DJ Khaled’s “Top Down,” as well as Colin Kaepernick, who called a “victim of this systemic oppression,” has been a total surprise.
All this attention places Meek in an uncomfortable spot. Yes, he was gracious when he phoned in during a recent panel with Reverend Al Sharpton. But he also refuses to have his family visit him in Chester State Prison. “If they see me like this – fucked-up beard, hair all ganked – then it’s like I’m really in here. Which I’m not,” he told Rolling Stone recently. That has been what Meek Mill has been trying to tell us all along. For all the adversity he has faced, he will not be your tragic figure.
Meek’s debut album, 2012’s Dreams And Nightmares, was the culmination of all the hard work he put in with his Dreamchasers mixtape series. He laments the gun violence and jail sentences that have set his friends back. He fantasizes over avenging his father’s death in “Traumatized.” And yet even still, at the time it felt easy to be cynical toward its more victorious moments, when hip-hop has the tendency to treat trauma as a more “authentic” expression of self.
Dreams And Nightmares arrived at a time when major-label rap debuts all seemed to get the same blockbuster treatment. Label boss Rick Ross’ prolonged cameos, the seemingly obligatory John Legend hook — these were treated like concessions Meek had to make. That may be true. But maybe Meek felt that he deserved to finally indulge for once.
Meek complicates his own rags-to-riches tale in last year’s Wins And Losses. He constantly debates over whether the fame he has now was worth pursuing. “Half these n—-s turn they back when rappers try to come for me,” Meek raps in “Heavy Heart,” recalling his high-profile beef with Drake. He also speaks with journalistic authority in “Young Black America” about how black lives like his never mattered, months before he was sent back to prison. (The NYPD would arrest him the following month for popping wheelies on a dirt bike — a felony count of reckless endangerment.)
Yet he also adds up all he has given his mother so far: A house, thousands of dollars at a time. Meek also refuses to stop rapping about his gleaming Rollies, not when he clearly earned them. “1942 Flows” is a loaded timeline of all he has overcome, starting from when he was in attending troubled grade schools. The longer he goes on, the more triumphant he sounds.”My teacher always used to tell me you gon’ lose n—- / That’s why I never went to school n—-,” Meek raps. By the song’s end, he gloats over how he can send his children to private school instead.
Seeing the Philadelphia Eagles enter the Super Bowl to “Dreams And Nightmares (Intro)” was bittersweet, for Meek most of all. “I wish my current situation was different, and that I could be with my brothers on that team, and the other Eagles fans, in celebrating this once-in-a-lifetime experience,” the hometown hero said in a statement from prison. Yet Meek of all people should recognize how that was also a victory. We’ve tried to keep him down, whether systematically or mentally. We even complained over how he couldn’t seem to rap without his voice being raised. We’ve all thought at one point that he was finished. We were always wrong.