By Trey Alston
The story of Championships begins, like many things, with loss. In Meek Mill’s case, it was agency; a decade-long cold war with the legal system stopped him in his tracks in 2014, keeping him ensnared until this past April. In the midst of this turmoil in 2015, he split his fan base wide open by provoking Drake and kindling a feud that would prove unwinnable for him. By the time Meek was sentenced to two to four years in prison in November of 2017, he’d bottomed out from this mixture of troubles. His path to victory — culminating in his recent No. 1 entry atop the Billboard 200 chart — began with the mental element he discovered while imprisoned that enabled him to take control of his relationships, his career, and his place as a public figure. He was released on bail in April and immediately embraced his tumultuous situation. His new album, Championships, was forged in the dying fires of his past and acts as an analysis and swan song to the circumstances that got him here.
Meek’s unkempt straight-back braids and wide eyes made his early raps all the more enticing. He was a creature from the black lagoon with a smoking tongue, barking tenacious punchlines about typical rap talking points: the ability to allure women, popping shells, of course, braggadocio. He was Meek Millz at this time, and by the age of 21 had four solo mixtapes under his belt (an additional four with his now defunct group The Bloodhoundz). That much work inspired his community. Videos of his rough freestyles feature seas of faces with grins stretching to their ears. He was Philadelphia and Philadelphia was him. This level of hard work and support wouldn’t go unnoticed – he caught the attention of label execs and then signed to Grand Hustle Records before switching course and aligning with Rick Ross’ Maybach Music Group.
The first part of Meek’s career was about overzealousness, the kind that always leads to crashes, time and time again. He experienced a whirlwind of success with his studio debut, Dreams and Nightmares, in 2012 and mixtape Dreamchasers 3 in 2013. He quickly catapulted over much of his competition at the time to become one of rap’s most prominent faces and the mascot of MMG. From his success, and paired with his cockiness, came the first blows – beefs with Cassidy and Drake that extinguished his momentum.
Cassidy, undoubtedly a better rapper, lyricist, and punchline fanatic, exposed that Meek wasn’t the lyricist that he, and much of everyone else, thought he was. After trading diss songs in December of 2012, which, of the two, Cassidy won with his bruising punchlines. Cassidy’s 10-minute diss, “Raid,” came out in January, putting Meek out of commission until September when he released “Repo.” Cassidy then responded to Meek’s diss only three days later, effectively ending the lopsided battle. But Cassidy’s victory would mean little outside of proving him a more dominating lyrical presence.
In 2015, Meek Mill’s Dreams Worth More Than Money went No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and sold 215,000 in the first week as his career, largely pushing Cassidy’s win onto the back burner. Meek took the number of units sold as a win and was anxious to flex his commercial appeal. This would be the cause of a self-provoked feud with Drake, who proved a much craftier opponent than Cassidy, choosing to assault Meek’s character by turning him into a running joke that people felt the need to scrape off their shoes. Meek released his project DC4 in 2016 and moved only 87,000 units in its first week, debuting at No. 3. Drake had quelled the beast.
Meek’s journey through the legal system was the background noise that finally became addressed when he was sentenced to two to four years in prison for violating parole in November of 2017. The vehemence of the judge and the questionable circumstances surrounding the 2008 arrest that placed him on probation raised red flags about not only Meek’s treatment, but also the infinite ways the justice system fails. Despite countless #FreeMeekMill protests and celebrity support, Meek sat encaged. “All I was doing was eating a lot, getting fat, and being stressed,” he revealed an in interview with Vulture in November.
Things changed when he emerged from prison on bail in April, fundamentally affected by the events that transpired. Not just with his case, but with his career and the relationships he built and/or burnt along the way. Subsequent interviews following his release revealed a poised man with a purpose, looking to rectify past mistakes and help make the criminal justice system fairer in the future. He spoke candidly about prison reform on CNN with Michael Smerconish, expressing an educated, informed stance on his harsh experience.
“There’s a lot of things in the system that clearly don’t make sense,” he said. “It’s keeping many young black men caught up in the system without even committing crimes.”
After being released from prison in April 2018, Meek dropped the Legends of the Summer EP in July, a quick sampler showing that he could touch all of his bases and that he had not lost a step. But he went musically dark afterwards, only appearing to speak about his experiences with the system and to discuss the necessary changes to it. (In September, he also mended his long-standing beef with Drake onstage in Boston for the Toronto rapper’s Aubrey and the Three Migos Tour.) It was fitting that he first hinted at the album that would become Championships in an early November interview with Vogue about criminal justice perform, poetic almost. Just over two weeks later, accompanied by a rapid storm of hype, Championships arrived in victorious splendor, featuring Meek’s voice, louder-than-ever, now imbued with purpose.
The beating heart of Championships comes from Meek’s voice and its warm embrace. He began his career as a bard boasting accomplishments on his journey and grew to become the voice of the marginalized on the new album. This larger reach, a product of renewed interest from fans that walked away a few years prior, made the album debut at No. 1 with 229,000 album-equivalent units sold in the first week. Instead of being satisfied with his return to top dawg status, Meek was still hungry. His focus was fundamentally altered while in prison; it’s all about the long game now. “#1 album but still like #23 on the Forbes list I gotta get on my grind Asap!!,” he tweeted a week after the album’s release.
Championships is the culmination of a journey through the absurd highs and lows. Peppered across its lengthy tracklist are dark emotions, melancholy reflection, and, most importantly, celebratory odes. Whether he’s spilling about love (“24/7”), or justifying his attachment to dilapidated environments, Meek approaches each subject with stunning attention to detail. But one of the pervading messages of the album is that, sometimes, loss is necessary for the ultimate win. “Championships” is the album’s centerpiece that reckons with the ultimate meaning of his defeat. “Beat the system, beat racism, beat poverty / And now we made it through all that, we at the championship,” Meek raps. By telling a story full of ups and downs, he reminds us that the growth spurred by those losses is the greatest win of all.