Meek Mill is living his best life. These days, he’s making music, pushing for criminal justice reform, and posting X-rated tweets. That varied existence is a far cry from where he was this time two years ago. During Grammy season 2018, the Philly rapper was incarcerated on a probation violation stemming from 2008 gun and drug charges.
Presiding Judge Genece Brinkley, who is under investigation for her treatment of his case, sentenced him to a two-to-four year prison sentence for popping a wheelie, and the whole world called BS. His mentor Jay-Z made Meek the pivotal figure of his criminal justice reform advocacy. Sports owners like Michael Rubin (Philadelphia 76ers), Robert Kraft (New England Patriots), and Jeffrey Lurie (Philadelphia Eagles) visited him and/or amplified his plight. The Eagles played “Dreams And Nightmares” throughout the 2018 NFL playoffs en route to their Superbowl LII victory. Beyonce, Drake, and others shouted him out on records.
He became one of the biggest faces of America’s criminal justice reform movement. His dubious conviction — which came from the sole testimony of a dirty cop — and prolonged probation stint exemplified the justice system’s unjust treatment of people of color.
The #FreeMeek movement forced the Philadelphia DA’s office to let him out on bail until they re-tried his case (which was resolved with his probation being ended in August 2019). After being freed in time for a 76ers playoff run, Meek went into the lab and cooked up Championships, a poignant recollection of his life and times. The album has been certified platinum and was nominated for a Best Rap Album Grammy this year.
Winning that Grammy would be a fitting coda to a whirlwind chapter of his life. As I’ve noted before, the Grammy committee is usually out of the loop on watershed hip-hop moments. Grammys don’t validate artists, but one would think credibility mattered to the committee as a purported authority on popular music.
That rarely appears to be the case though. 50 Cent exploded into the mainstream with 2003’s Get Rich Or Die Tryin, but the Grammy committee thought Evanescence was the Best New Artist. Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D City, is almost universally recognized as a classic album and 2013’s best work, but apparently the Grammy committee thought Macklemore’s accurately titled The Heist was better. Macklemore didn’t even agree with them. In 2018, Jay-Z was nominated eight times for his resurgent 4:44 album and didn’t get a single victory.
Awards aren’t just trophies, they’re documentation of history. They’re a chance to chronicle the zeitgeist of an era. If Meek were to win the Best Rap Album Grammy, it would be a rare chance for the committee to be on the right side of history. A decade from now, Meek could reflect on his rollercoaster ending to the 2010s and juxtapose the lows of his carceral experience with successes that include a Grammy win. Criminal justice reform was one of the 2010s’ biggest issues. Meek Mill’s plight underscored the prison industrial complex’s sustenance (not failure) and influenced the dominant themes of the unforgettable Championships. Highlighting his behind-bars testimony would be a powerful Grammy moment.
But a Grammy win for Championships wouldn’t be a baseless political gesture. Championships is a very good album. Meek has always had the bangers. “Going Bad,” “Uptown Vibes,” and “Splash Warning” kept him in play at all the functions. He’s one of the best at delivering chilling narratives of the Philly streets with a rare authenticity. We get that throughout the album, especially on “Pay You Back” and “100 Summers.”
His decision to push beyond the standard fare and speak up for his people on Championships is what makes it a standout work. On “Trauma,” he talked about the jarring reality of imprisoned people being separated from their children while their kids are led astray, and rhymed about how “my celly mom just died, he wanna use my collect / and he won’t make it to the wake unless he give ’em a check.”
He reflected on his incarceration as a mere machination of capitalism on “What’s Free:”
“Oh, say you can see, I don’t feel like I’m free
Locked down in my cell, shackled from ankle to feet
Judge bangin’ that gavel, turned me to slave from a king
Another day in the bing, I gotta hang from a string”
Jay-Z’s instant-classic verse bolsters “What’s Free” as one of Meek’s most important songs. The soulful “Oodles O’ Noodles Babies” is also rife with social commentary, as he reflects on seeing his cousin shot dead, sarcastically asking Kanye West if being born into such a treacherous environment was “a choice.”
Rappers like Meek are prone to rap about 30-clips and nameless shooters so incessantly that the references can seem trivial. But Championships’ firsthand narratives of trauma explain how the hood rears youth to have a low value of life, including their own. Rappers have the artistic license to rhyme about whatever they want. But when the music eschews menace and bravado to diagnose conditions too many Americans are overlooking, it transcends. Championships is that transcendent album.
Unfortunately, there are too many people like Meek who were born into unfavorable conditions where economic disadvantages pushed them toward illegal means to survive. There are too many Americans being railroaded by Judge Brinkleys who don’t know “the Billionaire from Marcy” and can’t get the world to fight for them. There are too many artists releasing mindless, explanation-less gangsta rap — a notable amount of whom grew up with racial and class advantages that render them unable to explain anything. Meek took his opportunity to be what so many people couldn’t and turn his tumult into triumph. That’s what champions do. And it’s why the Grammy should strongly consider giving his opus a nod for Best Rap Album.
Meek Mill is a Warner Music artist. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.