“I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide, Welling and swelling I bear in the tide. Leaving behind nights of terror and fear, I rise, Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear, I rise. Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave, I am the dream and the hope of the slave. I rise… I rise… I rise.” These lines from Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise” could not be more representative of anyone’s life than that of Philadelphia rapper Meek Mill.
The adversity that Meek Mill had encountered this past year, or rather his whole life, is the backbone of this album. In November 2017, Robert Rihmeek Williams was sentenced to 2-4 years in state prison for violating probation – a case that has followed Meek Mill for over a decade. And with the sentencing, the entire hip-hop community rallied behind the renowned artist. The hashtag #FreeMeek was trending on social media, and he became the modern example of America’s broken criminal justice system, and it’s dangerous implications for young black men in America. With his arrest, the discussion of Criminal Justice Reform became widespread.
Support for Meek Mill was widespread, from Jay-Z, who quietly spent millions on his legal fees to Beyoncé, who name-dropped Meek on her collaboration song with Jay and Future, titled Top-Off.
“Top off the coupe and it look like Freaknik. In the hood, hollerin’, ‘Free Meek,” she sang.
The #FreeMeek campaign even reached the City Hall of Philadelphia, and Mayor Jim Kenney visited Meek at the state prison in Chester.
In the new era of hip-hop, it is evident that no one in the game has better introductions into an album than Meek Mill. His classic Dreams and Nightmares, on his junior album, Lord Knows on his 2015 album, and Wins and Loses from his album of the same title have all made waves in their own respects. With that being said, his introduction on Championships did not disappoint. The sample of Phil Collins’ In the Air Tonight pays homage to Philadelphia legend Beanie Sigel and perfectly sets the tone for the rest of the album. The Phil Collins sample fades from the beginning and leads to anticipation as Meek raps on a muffled beat and as Meek tells his rags to riches story.
Like his idols Jay-Z and Rick Ross, Meek Mill isn’t a stranger to delivering clever, thought provoking punchlines. “You would think this Wheel Of Fortune, how we selling O’s,” Meek says, alluding to his past life of selling drugs. The metaphor compares the popular TV show to the slang term for ounces, relating to crack.
The second song on the album, Trauma, which Meek revealed was about Colin Kaepernick, takes a jab at the current state of civil rights activism on the modern stage.
“If you don’t stand for nothing, you gon’ fall for something
And in the 60’s, if you kneeled, you’d prolly be killed
But they don’t kill you now, they just take you out of your deal
Kill your account, look where money get spilled
Check it, and they don’t kill you now, they just take you out of your deal”
This song showcases Meek’s growth as an artist, with hard-hitting lines over a flip of Mobb Deep’s Get Away. Meek touches on the 2018 murder of Stephon Clark, who was shot 20 times by police in his grandmother’s backyard:
“They shot that boy 20 times when they could’ve told him just freeze
Could’ve put him in a cop car, but they let him just bleed
The ambulance, they coming baby, just breathe”
The hook of the song, “When them drugs got a hold of your mama, And the judge got a hold on your father” is a testament to the cruel reality of the cycle of poverty.
The most notable song on the album is surely What’s Free, featuring Rick Ross and Jay-Z. The song samples the classic What’s Beef? by the late Notorious B.I.G. The first verse features Rick Ross, showcasing his usual braggadocious lyrics about material acquisitions, his status in the rap game, and surprisingly addressing the arrest of the controversial Brooklyn rapper 6ix9ine:
“Screaming “gang gang,” now you wanna rat
Racketeering charges caught him on a tap.”
In the second verse, Meek continues to rap about his personal struggle in the face of systemic oppression, and shouts out his wealthy friends, Michael Rubin and Robert Kraft, who played a part in Meek’s release from prison.
The third verse is the most remarkable on the album, it features Jay-Z, tackling the issue of mass incarceration, addressing Kanye West, and boasting about his skills as a businessman. The verse starts with an interpolation of a couplet in The Star Spangled Banner:
“In the land of the free, where the blacks enslaved
Three-fifths of a man, I believe’s the phrase”
The line points out the continued effects of slavery and the Jim Crow era, even in 2018 – with an allusion to the ⅗ Compromise.
On the next line, Jay-Z speaks to his envious business ventures:
“I’m 50% of D’USSÉ and it’s debt free
100% of Ace of Spades, worth half a B
Roc Nation, half of that, that’s my piece
Hunnid percent of TIDAL to bust it up with my Gs,”
With an estimated net worth of $900 million, Jay-Z is a partial owner of D’USSE, the owner of streaming service TIDAL, a major shareholder with the Brooklyn Nets, and is the founder of Roc Nation, one of the world’s largest entertainment companies.
But before you get a chance to take in his witty braggadocio, Jay-Z goes on to address one of the hottest topics of the year – the speculation about his relationship with controversial artist Kanye West, in light of their obvious political differences:
“No red hat, don’t Michael and Prince me and ‘Ye
They separate you when you got Michael and Prince’s DNA, uh”
Upon the albums initial release, most listeners and critics interpreted the line as a jab at Kanye, to the point where Jay-Z had to tweet for the first time since 2017 for clarification.
Overall, album is a masterpiece and is wonderfully produced. There are songs for those who listen to Meek for hype like Uptown Vibes and On Me. The album quels one of rap’s biggest beefs with the song Going Bad, featuring Drake himself. We get retrospective meek on songs like Cold Hearted II, Oodles O’ Noodles Babies, and Respect The Game. The pain that Meek has endured this past year – frankly, his whole life – shapes this album for what it is. It’s wonder Championships landed No. 1 on Billboard and sold 208K its first week. We get arguably some of the best conscious rap from of the year – and the verse of the year from Jay- Z all within an hour and 9 minutes.
Championships is a solid 10/10.