Without any legal trouble to worry about, will Meek Mill still be Meek Mill?
On Tuesday, Mill pleaded guilty to illegal possession of a firearm and the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office dropped all other charges against the Philadelphia rapper born Robert Rihmeek Williams on the gun and drugs charges stemming from an incident that kept the hip-hop star either in jail or on probation for 12 years.
That announcement comes in the wake of Pennsylvania Superior Court’s decision last month to vacate the conviction that has defined Mill’s existence since he was first arrested on South Hemberger street in January 2007, when he was just beginning to make a name for himself as a promising battle rapper with a potentially bright future.
It means that the operative hashtag is no longer “FreeMeekMill. It’s #MeekMillIsFree.
And it also means that the 32-year-old’s long journey through the criminal justice system that began when he was still a teenager and shadowed him throughout his rise as a rhyme-spitting street-tough hip-hop star is finally over.
That ordeal is the subject of a newish five-part Amazon docuseries Free Meek that premiered earlier this month. The reality TV version of Mill’s saga brings the story up to a point when the rapper’s future was still uncertain. The show wrapped with Mill still under the supervision of Philadelphia Judge Genece Brinkley, who sent him prison for two to four years in November 2017 for technical parole violations. (Brinkley was removed from the case last month.)
Tuesday’s decision doesn’t render Free Meek irrelevant. The show uses the Philadelphia rapper’s story to build a compelling case that the American criminal justice system can be a cruel, unjust and illogical place for those without means to, in particular people of color.
Today’s news lifts a tremendous burden off Mill, who speaks in Free Meek of the stress of fearing he could be sent back to jail at any time. “Locked in cages, got to walk around with shackles on your feet,” Mill recounted to the Inquirer last year. “It’s a nightmare.”
And the good news for Mill also shifts the dominant narrative of his career. Street experience is highly prized in hip-hop, and few have been through more authentic hard times than Mill.
Early on in his career, he developed a reputation as chronicler of life on the streets while developing his Dreamchasers brand with a series of mixtapes — including 2010‘s Mr. Philadelphia — that established him as a fierce battle rapper.
By the time he released his official debut album Dreams & Nightmares in 2012, he had already been in and out of prison on the same charges that have haunted him until this day.
In the title cut to Dreams & Nightmares that became his signature song — and an anthem for both the Sixers and the Super Bowl champion Eagles in 2018 — Mill stated his incarceration bona fides while declaring his determination to succeed by dint of hard work and determination no matter what the obstacles were placed in his way.
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“I used to pray for times like this, to rhyme like this / So I had to grind like that, to shine like this,” he rhymed. “And the amount of time I spent on some locked up s —, in the back of a paddy wagon, cuffs locked on wrists / Seen my dreams unfold, nightmares come true.” Other rappers might be soft, but having done time in prison was part of Meek Mill’s brand.
Mill’s case has given him plenty of subject matter. On “Lords Knows,” in 2015, he even thanked Judge Brinkley for providing challenges to overcome: “Shout out to the judge who denied me bail / It made me smarter, made me go harder.”
Of course, his legal situation has also hampered Mill. Probation regulations made it difficult to tour, and had he served the full two to four years of his most recent sentence, it might have brought his career to a close in a fickle, impatient music industry. “A two-year sentence? That’s like the death of Meek Mill, really, as a rapper,” he said in an Inquirer interview last year.
But Mill has also proven himself quite capable of doing damage to his own career when he’s been out and free, without the help of the criminal justice system. In 2016, he nearly did himself in, turning himself to a persona non grata among many in the rap world by picking a fight with Canadian rapper Drake that he was widely perceived to have lost badly.
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Mill rebounded with the solid 2017 album Wins & Losses — recorded after his break up with Nicki Minaj. But truth be told, his reputation didn’t fully recover until Judge Brinkley tossed him back in jail in 2017, and he was seen as suffering through a real life injustice far graver than losing a rap battle.
But now that all of that is behind him — as is the constant pressure that threatened Mill’s freedom and gave his music urgency.
So what does Meek Mill need to do now?
The answer is to move forward, while also looking back.
Mill’s current tour, which comes to the BB&T Pavilion in Camden in Sept. 13, will surely be a celebration of freedom. And with no legal issues hanging over his head, he’s free to perform around the world without asking anyone’s permission.
But Mill easing up and turning into a party rapper wouldn’t be a good idea, and thankfully is not a likely scenario. Struggle and strife beat out peace and quiet for inspiration. Mill would be wise to use his new found freedom — and the platform the #FreeMeekMill gave him — to continue speak to justice issues his case called attention to.
In both the music he’s recently released — songs like “Stay Woke” and the well told tale of hard times in the hood “Oodles O’ Noodles Babies” — Mill has indicated he’s already learned that lesson.
“I feel like a got a bigger responsibility,” Mill said in an interview last August, as he was getting ready to headline the Made in America festival in his hometown.
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Mill now has an audience broader than he did before perceived injustice turned him into a symbol of a flawed criminal justice system. The drama he’s faced has presented him with an opportunity. “It gave me a story to tell,” the rapper says in Free Meek. Now that he has finally been granted his full freedom, his next task is simple: Tell it.