“When I get mad I just start saying what’s bothering me.....I can’t not tell the truth! Lol” —Meek Mill tweet, July 21, 2015
It’s hard to believe it’s been a year since the dawn of the Drake/Meek Mill beef. I can remember where I was when I saw Meek’s tweet that seeded it — lingering in the air-conditioned car outside of my apartment, stalling the humid crush of the summer night, scrolling through Twitter, stereo still playing. It was near midnight when retweets of Meek Mill filled my timeline: “Stop comparing drake to me too.... He don’t write his own raps! That’s why he ain’t tweet my album because we found out!”
I did my usual research, checking and double-checking to make sure the tweet was real, to make sure there was a blue check anchored to the name, to make sure this wasn’t some kind of inside joke between the two to help promote Meek’s recently released album, which featured Drake. Upon going directly to Meek’s timeline, a new tweet emerged: “The whole game know forreal they scared to tell the truth! I can’t wait tok these guys and sit back and act like they don’t know!”
I sighed, a sound somewhere at the intersection of shock, excitement, and a touch of sadness. I turned the volume up slightly on the car’s radio, remembering that I had been listening to Drake’s If You’re Reading This, It’s Too Late. I pulled the keys out of the car, and stepped into the vast and dark swath of July heat.
The timeline of the Meek Mill versus Drake incident is still so touchable it hardly feels like the past: The impact of it still lives heavily at the heart of Meek Mill’s career. And I believe that Meek deserves better. Meek Mill can rap. His 2009 mixtape, Flamers 2: Hottest in Tha City, is engaging, entertaining, unpolished, but full of promise. By the time the first Dreamchasers tape came along in 2011, I was on board, understanding that Meek’s lack of polish wasn’t a flaw as much as something that was built into his DNA as an MC, representative of the stories he was delivering in his work. He seemed to me then, as he still does now, to be the next natural evolution in the Philadelphia rap sound that was built by State Property — a delivery that is frantic, uneven, and, of course, loud. But it is also an attacking style of rap that eschews the use of a hook.
When people joked about the volume of Meek Mill’s voice, I considered urgency, as I often do — what it may look like for someone who has an entire history of real stories, and also a history of people attempting to pull them away from the only chance they have to tell them. There is a real emotional intensity that rests in the music of Meek Mill that is often ignored. There’s an honesty, one that I think demands the artist to perform it as he does. I, too, would yell. I, too, would race through the hook of a song in order to never let my listeners up off the mat, so they could know what it’s like to be overwhelmed and have few ways out. More than most rappers who are as commercially successful as he is, Meek Mill, to me, was conveying emotions that felt believable. This was, I believed, a commendable endeavor.
“If you gone tell it all..... Just keep it real and never fraud!” —Meek Mill tweet, July 24, 2015
And so, through a new lens, I imagine this was always about what is real and what isn’t. There is a weight to that in a lot of places, even if we don’t want to admit it to ourselves. When black people from almost anywhere look upon another black person and tell them that they don’t believe them to be real, those are still fighting words, no matter how they arrive.
To come from any place where authenticity is a currency means that you not only cling to your own, but also demand it out of other people. Even in rap, where authenticity is shaky at best and a thing that never existed at worst, there is what feels like an invisible bar: rapping about what you are and not what you imagine yourself to be. Can you make the listener believe in you enough? I believed Biggie enough. I believe Jay Z sometimes, or not at all. I don’t believe Rick Ross nearly enough. And I believe Meek Mill slightly more than enough, even when he’s rapping the unbelievable. I can listen to those who I don’t believe, as long as they aren’t attempting to sell me on how genuine they are. As long as our exchange is similar to the one I might experience when sitting down to watch a Michael Bay film – that which is even less realistic than the most unrealistic action film: explosions, lights, sounds, and shaky substance. Still entertaining, but it must know what it is in order to stay that way.
What Meek Mill was saying in those tweets was simple: “Drake, I don’t believe you’re real,” an insult that, if you believe yourself to be real, is a death blow. In the criticism of Meek Mill’s response, all of us lost sight of what he was actually saying. If someone where I’m from tells you that you aren’t real, that’s some shit that means you don’t exist. It means that they are, for all intents and purposes, seeing through you. Nothing unreal exists. Meek pulls the receipts on Drake not writing his own rhymes, and he sees him begin to vanish before his eyes; and who would respond to someone they’ve built into a ghost?
I haven’t the time, here at least, to have a firm and principled conversation about collaboration in rap music: a conversation that so few people were interested in having when it wasn’t their favorite artist who was being taken to task. What I do have the time to say is that I believe in collaborative work, and also believe that what Meek Mill hung over Drake’s head had weight. I believe that Meek Mill himself has probably not been above collaboration in the studio, and it was still a charge that, for him, an MC who walks into a radio station and freestyles for nine minutes at a time, had weight — a weight that Drake got away with not defending at the time, because he didn’t have to.
Here is the thing about the playground fight, if you’ve seen enough: It doesn’t matter who starts it, who yells the word “soft!” into the face of another. When it comes down to the actual fists, the actual hands pressing into the body, and the bodies falling into a brief heap before being pulled apart, the talk is the same. It is the more popular kid, the one with the most to lose, that we will declare the winner, no matter who strikes the most glaring blow. We learn this first as kids, and then as fans of whatever we throw ourselves into.
It helped, of course, that Drake and his team understood the internet in a way that Meek seemed to have little interest in. It helped, of course, that we all love memes more than admitting to ourselves that a song may not be as great as we thought it was. It helped, of course, that we are all, myself included, so committed to this idea of shared excitement that anything which delivers it to us is golden. And it helped, of course, that Meek Mill appeared overwhelmed, not knowing how to stop the train he started.
“Z” — Meek Mill tweet, July 29, 2015
I looked back on that memory on the July night last summer when I, like many others, was tuned in to Hot 97, listening to Funkmaster Flex do his best to stall. It had been promised that Flex would be delivering Meek Mill’s highly anticipated response to Drake’s two dis tracks, live on air. The promise was to be fulfilled at 7 p.m., until it wasn’t. And then at 8 p.m., until it wasn’t. By 9 p.m., the internet swelled to a chorus of jokes — some at Flex’s expense, sure, but the majority aimed at Meek Mill’s failure to deliver us our spectacle, even those of us who had already determined his loss. By the time Meek eventually dropped a response, the confusing, sprawling, uneven “Wanna Know,” overrun with clunky skits and samples, the verdict had long been made.
This was the turning point. It is unfair to ignore Meek’s role in his own failures here. He launched an attack but didn’t appear to have any plan for what to do when a reaction came. Even if we are to consider the idea that he believed Drake to be a fraud, unworthy of response, it is hard to absorb the kind of return fire that he was served without any escape or redemption plan. I imagine that he knew what many of us knew at the time: It was all too much. Meek Mill lobbed a charge at Drake on the basis of rap, and found himself having to deflect memes and Drake fans, comers from all angles. The battle is on the internet now and Drake showed such a clear understanding of how to navigate the space, it was stunning.
Maybe the failure is in not knowing your enemy. Meek Mill called out the authenticity of a rap artist that people don’t necessarily need to be real. Drake, no matter what type of authentic vibes he hangs his hat on, is almost a mirage at this point in his career. He can be whatever the listeners need him to be, and it is so shameless that it feels real. Meek Mill’s grand mistake was banking on the fact that the listeners needed Drake to be real, as opposed to simply entertaining. Meek Mill, beyond the immediate aesthetics, is a personal, confessional MC in a way that feels touchable. Drake’s personal confessions feel almost impossible and entirely difficult to imagine. They occupy two different worlds. If you go after someone who is comfortable with becoming anything, it’s hard to imagine that they won’t also become something that can swallow you alive.
Meek Mill’s Twitter account, once a fairly consistent stream of bold proclamations and small commentaries on social ills, is mostly silent now. It has been since the end of last summer. He has tweeted four times in 2016, all links to his projects, with very little language of his own. He still looks slightly on edge in interviews, as if he’s waiting for that question. Only recently did his Instagram comment sections shake themselves free of overzealous OVO stans.
I still love Meek Mill. He strikes me as a survivor of many things, even the mishandling of a beef that would tear down a lesser career. It can’t be forgotten that last year, Meek dropped one of the best rap albums of the year, Dreams Worth More Than Money, before it got drowned out by the Drake noise. Earlier this year, he dropped “War Pain,” the Drake dis that “Wanna Know” should have been. It was a fantastic rebuttal. It was vintage Meek: the underdog, the fighter, not letting us up off the mat. It was mocked in many circles, seen as too late, Meek striking back well after Drake moved on. And, truthfully, it was. But that is, in some ways, who Meek Mill is. It’s what draws me to his brand of honesty. He’s unrehearsed, perfectly unpolished, willing to throw a first punch even if he doesn’t know whether or not he can win the fight.
So Meek Mill caught the bad end of a rap beef, one that he will almost certainly be tethered to for the duration of his career. And still, I found myself in a Philadelphia gas station this spring, with the attendant blaring the “Dreams and Nightmares” intro out of his speakers. I asked, casually, his opinion of Meek Mill in the post-Drake era. “That shit don’t matter out here anymore, man,” he said. “He still gets love out here. A ton of Philly kids still look up to him.”
That’s as real as it gets.