Meek Mill only ever wants to rap.
In an era when rappers outright deny the label of “rapper,” when everyone in hip-hop from Kendrick Lamar to Drake is harmonizing on their songs, Meek is the last man standing on the major label mainstream level who still hears the beat in terms of bars and not melodies, and still attacks every single syllable as if the words were prey, and he has to absolutely slaughter them to eat, to survive.
Hip-hop has become big business; Jay-Z and Chance and even Vince Staples garner as much attention for their corporate partnerships as their lyrics, but Meek Mill is surprisingly low key about advertising his sponsorships. It’s not surprising from a content standpoint — Meek is an unrepentantly street dude, often seemingly oblivious to the workings of social media and modern maneuvering in an era of viral memes and digital streams. It is surprising that a rapper like that, with no interest in slanging soda (at least not the kind you drink), or political maneuvering — in the music industry and outside of it — could still be so successful in 2017.
Yet, here we are, with Wins & Losses, Meek’s third album and newest release from Maybach Music Group through Atlantic Records, currently dominating rap discussion online after a promotional run that included a short film released in episodic installments, a four-song preview EP, and a collection of singles that for the first time didn’t — and couldn’t — feature big name collaborators like Drake and Nicki Minaj. Clearly, the bad blood there has been spilled. Notably, said promo run also included a series of radio freestyles in which Meek claims he’s going back to “fuzzy cornrows” flow-Meek, whipping hosts into a minor frenzy.
While there are other major label releases this year that prominently feature mostly rapped lyrics from rappers who clearly care about the spirit of “rhymes over everything else” — Logic’s Everybody, Vince Staples’ Big Fish Theory, Joey Badass’ All-Amerikkkan Badass, to name a few — none are as hard-hitting, preferring to focus instead on aesthetic presentation (Logic), sonic experimentation (Vince), or sociopolitical commentary over live instrumentation (Joey). Jay-Z’s 4:44 was praised as a return to form, but that praise largely focused on the cathartic and vulnerable title track, and Jay’s burgeoning pro-Black wealth stance more than the cleverness of his punchlines or the strength of the bars. Other recent entries into rap’s consciousness this year include Lil Yachty, who sang as much as he rapped, and 21 Savage, whose flow resembles more of a conversational tone, like he’s talking into his phone at a crowded bank and doesn’t want anyone to overhear his snarled threats.
Meek Mill isn’t worried about sounding cool or carrying a tune or advancing the stylistic possibilities in rap delivery. From the self-titled intro on Wins & Losses, prefaced by the words of motivational speaker Eric Thomas, that signature yelp is the first thing you hear, even before the beat drops. In fact, the beat doesn’t actually drop until he’s ripped off a good sixteen bars practically a capella, then it drops back out, before reappearing in full force another eight bars later, and he doesn’t stop rhyming the entire time. On the latest episode of Everyday Struggle, rap curmudgeon Joe Budden calls it “one of the hardest intros that we’ve heard in a while (in rap), if the last hard intro didn’t come from Meek.” Budden considers it evidence that Meek puts his heart and soul into rap.
That isn’t to say that the other mentioned artists haven’t done the same. But each of them has approached the final product from different directions artistically, focusing on the whole artistic endeavor or overarching concept of the album. Meek’s process is more straightforward, as he told Rolling Stone in a passionate, revealing interview Tuesday:
I wanted to do more rapping, and I wanted to turn it into a rap album. You know, there’s a lot of music out, you’ve got different platforms like Soundcloud, iTunes, Spotify, Tidal. People can listen to what they want, and we’ve got so many different genres of rap now, like you’ve got trap music, mumble music, street rap, pop rap. I just wanted to cater to, like, my side, you know what I’m saying? One day I hope [the platforms] are going to give us official genres. This is my side. I’m catering to street rap. So I wanted to open the gate back up to Meek Milly rapping, what people know me for, actually spitting and, you know what I mean, touching the heart.
He elaborates further: “I don’t really balance [doing music for the clubs, and doing music for the streets]. I just do what I feel. When I’m in the studio I do what I feel. I probably create about 100 songs and then, you know, I balance it through picking out my songs.”
That is an old school approach in a decidedly new school world. While Wins & Losses hangs together as a cohesive project, it’s clear from “1942 Flows” to “Price” that Meek is focused on spitting and very little else. Despite the ridicule he may receive about his perceived volume-control issues, he doesn’t back down from his full-force delivery, even if it sounds like he’s shouting; the urgency in his voice may lend it an unintentional lack of variation, but the desperation it conveys is what pulls at listeners’ heartstrings, forcing them to feel him even if they never sold a pack or witnessed friend shot down over street drama.
Though Meek doesn’t dedicate whole songs to addressing the Drake beef, or the Nicki breakup, or the internet jokes, his determined lack of commentary on those subjects doesn’t stop fans from digging just as doggedly into every couplet to find some way to turn vague references into subliminal snipes, illustrating just how much Meek wants the focus to be on the rapping, not the drama. If art is therapy, he’s got real issues to get off his chest; if he’s rapping to prove he’s the best rapper (a distinction fewer and fewer of the verbal technicians in the game seem to care about earning these days), he’s not going to talk about memes or promotional tactics or politics. He’s going to step into the booth, spit the hottest verse he can think of, and let the internet sort out the rest. In an era when so many folks in hip-hop want so many different things, Meek Mill might be the last straight spitter standing — and he’s perfectly okay with that.