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Meek Mill is a changed man on ‘Championships,’ his first post prison album

Philly rapper Meek Mill releases his new album Championships, his first since he became an international cause celebre and spokesman for criminal justice reform after his imprisonment for parole violations last November.

Meek Mill performs on the Rocky Stage during the Made in America festival on Saturday afternoon, Sept. 01, 2018.
Meek Mill performs on the Rocky Stage during the Made in America festival on Saturday afternoon, Sept. 01, 2018.Read moreHeather Khalifa / Staff photographer

Meek Mill is a changed man.

How could he not be? The Philadelphia rapper born Robert Rihmeek Williams, who released his fourth album, Championships (Maybach / Atlantic *** ) on Friday, has lived through a year full of drama.

Last November, Mill was sentenced to 2 to 4 years in prison for a parole violation stemming from a nearly decade old gun and drug charge. The outcry over the harsh sentence turned him into an international cause celebre, and he was released from jail on bail in April, going straight to a Sixers playoff game to ring a faux Liberty Bell in celebration of his independence.

Since then, he’s been busy, positioning himself as a spokesman advocating for criminal justice reform, headlining the Made in America festival and releasing an EP that included a song celebrating his status as a local hero whose identity is inextricable from the city that made him: “Millidelphia.” He also scheduled a tour: He plays the Met on March 15 and 16, 2019.

>> READ MORE: Meek Mill on life after prison, Made in America and how Philly made him who he is

That activity has all been leading up to the release of Championships, a 19 track, feature-filled collection that is marked by a greater sense of gravitas in Mill’s music. The album unsubtly signals the significance of this juncture in his career by kicking off with a sample of Phil Collins‘ “In the Air Tonight.” Has Meek Mill been waiting for this moment all his life? Yes, he has.

Generally, he makes the most of it. The travails Mill, 31, has endured have boosted his stature, as measured by the high profile guests eager appear on Championships.

Not surprising, they include Jay-Z, whose Roc Nation manages him, and Rick Ross, whose Maybach Music label releases his work. Cardi B, who toured as an opener for Mill in 2017, returns the favor by dropping in to spit with characteristic verve on “On Me.”

But the marquee guest is Drake, the enormously popular Canadian rapper with whom Mill engaged in a bitter 2015 rap feud in which the Philly emcee was widely considered vanquished.

The extent to which Mill’s plight galvanized hip-hop was made clear when Drake joined the support network whose high profile and well-heeled members (all thanked on Championships) include Jay-Z, Sixers co-owner and Meek BFF Michael Rubin and New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft.

Since his release Mill has appeared on stage with Drake twice (including Drake’s Philly show), and on Championships, the two are well matched on an enticing track called “Going Bad.” It’s a choice example of Drake’s casual, easy way with an oft-kilter rhythm that Mill deftly picks up on with the self confidence to reference “Back to Back,” the dis track Drake once buried him with. Unity! It’s a beautiful thing.

It’s a testament to Mill’s growth that Championship works first and foremost as a personal statement, even with the cavalcade of guests, with a list that includes 21 Savage, Kodak Black, rising British R&B singer Ella Mai, Philly rapper PnB Rock and more.

But before we further praise Mill, let’s talk about “What’s Free,” a track inspired by the Notorious B.I.G.’s “What’s Beef,” that has both Ross and Jay-Z on it.

It’s a song that digs into the question of what freedom is in a society with a history of enslaving African Americans and a current mass incarceration issue in which, as Jay-Z pointed out in an New York Time op-ed “black people are sent to prison for probation and parole violations at much higher rates than white people.”

But “What’s Free” is also a rap song that goes off topic. In doing so, it provides two of Championship’s immediate talking points. First, there’s Ross verse that includes a repulsive and egregious homophobic slur that’s an example of retrograde thinking that continues to dog hip-hop.

It doesn’t come out of Mill’s mouth, but has no business being on an album by a rapper who earlier this year put out a song called “Stay Woke.” The last minute Ross verse refers to recent racketeering charges faced by Tekashi 6ix9ine and suggests that the rapper’s purple hair will lead to him getting raped in prison.

Jay-Z’s verse addresses Kanye West’s support of President Trump. (Elsewhere on the album, Mill lambastes West for his comments about slavery being “a choice.”) “No red hat, don’t Michael and Prince me and Ye,” Jay-Z raps, seeming to say he doesn’t want to be grouped together with West as Michael Jackson and Prince were as musical greats of the 1980s.

After rap fans spent Friday debating his words, Jay logged on to Twitter for the first time in a year and a half to insist it meant “Don’t pit me against my brothers no matter what our difference are.”

And over an hour, Championships runs long, but its sins of commission are forgivable, coming from a star who’s back in action — though not out of legal jeopardy, as his case is currently under appeal as he seeks a new trial — with much on his mind.

The album strikes a balance between upbeat party tracks like “Splash Warning,” which features guests Future, Roddy RicchCQ and Young Thug, and tough talking cuts such “Trauma,” which remarks on “a black woman trying to take my freedom” in reference to Philadelphia Judge Genece Brinkley, who sentenced Mill last November.

The fast talking title song is rife with snapshots of blood spilled on the streets of Philadelphia that our hero used as motivation to lift himself up.

That theme is continued on Championships’ most deliciously titled track, “Oodles O’ Noodles Babies.” Its titles refers to generations of kids fending for and feeding themselves because Dad is in prison — or worse, dead — while Mom’s at work, and hope is hard to find.

The song samples “Love Changes” by 1970s Atlanta funk band Mother’s Finest. Mill sketches scenes with a sharp eye: “Remember I kissed my aunt in the casket and her forehead was cold / I was like 4 years old, we couldn’t afford no clothes.”

At Championships’ best, Mill takes painful past memories — and more recent ones, behind bars — and gain strength from the recollection of what it took to build a better life, even as his legal status remains tenuous and the threat of being re-incarcerated hangs over him. “Remember, nobody never believed in us,” he shouts out to his fellow “Babies.” “When they see us now, they can’t believe it’s us.”