The last time Jay-Z stood on a stage in Philadelphia, the rapper-mogul had his pal Meek Mill right beside him as a hometown-hero guest to bring the Made in America festival to a satisfying close on the Ben Franklin Parkway on Labor Day weekend.
On Friday, Jay-Z was back in town, headlining the Wells Fargo Center in South Philadelphia in a wholly impressive stop on his tour for 4:44, his late-career return-to-form album full of mea culpas and self-critical analysis that led the way in pulling in eight Grammy nominations last week.
Meek Mill, however, was nowhere to be found. The Philadelphia rapper is a prisoner at the State Correctional Institute in Chester, serving a two- to four-year state prison sentence that was handed down last month for probation infractions that date back to a 2008 drug and gun conviction.
Though Mill wasn't physically in the building Friday, his presence was powerfully felt. Fans throughout the arena on all sides of the octagon-shaped stage held up signs distributed on the concourses: "Free Meek Mill," "Justice4Meek," and "Probation Is A Trap," quoting an op-ed piece Jay-Z wrote in the New York Times advocating criminal justice reform last month.
Before the show, 76ers center Joel Embiid, who attended with a number of teammates donning "Stand With Meek Mill" hoodies including Ben Simmons and Robert Covington, spoke in support of Mill backstage. (More on that below.) Chicago rapper Vic Mensa raised his voice in protest at Mill's predicament and unequal justice for minorities in his opening set.
And Jay-Z stopped the show twice to focus on Mill, who is signed to his Roc Nation management company. After "Big Pimpin'," he spurred the crowd into an a cappella rap-along to Mill's hit "Dreams and Nightmares."
Later, following "The Story of O.J.," his 4:44 discourse about American racism, the 47-year-old rapper who wore a Colin Kaepernick jersey on Saturday Night Live earlier this year tied Mill's legal predicament into a discussion about protests against racial injustice.
Taking a knee before the national anthem "is not about the flag," the rapper said. "That [expletive] is not about inanimate objects. It's about people dying. It's about young people leaving their house and never coming back home. And it's not a black and white issue. It's a human issue. Everybody should be fighting that."
"And if you see a young man put on probation for 11 years since he was 19 years old" — Mill's 2008 conviction stemmed from an arrest two years earlier — "that man is being stomped by the system. That man is in jail for doing wheelies and breaking up a fight," he said, referencing the probation-violating incidents in New York and St. Louis that Judge Genece E. Brinkley cited in sentencing Mill in Common Pleas Court in November. He then echoed chants of "Free Meek Mill" coming from the crowd.
The 1-hour, 45-minute 4:44 show was a treat to witness in the Wells Fargo, in comparison with watching Jay-Z on the muddy Parkway at Made in America. Working all sides of the room with a formidable band in the pit beneath him, the rapper constructed a set that was, of course, full of hits like "99 Problems," "Heart of the City (Ain't No Love)," "Public Service Announcement," "On to the Next One," and on and on.
With the stage surrounded by four extremely cool-looking two-sided video screen panels, the show looked great with production values the best money can buy, just like the samples such as the loop from Stevie Wonder's "Love's in Need of Love Today" that graced 4:44's delicate "Smile."
The 4:44 songs that come clean about Jay-Z's infidelities to his wife, Beyoncé, also tell a tale that reaches back to his past, growing up with an absent father in the Marcy Houses projects in Brooklyn. And as he lamented "a lot of friends of mine who were 16, 17, 18 years old who didn't make it," it connected back to Mill, whose father was murdered when he was 5.
In "Where I'm From," Jay-Z rhymed about growing up in a place "where news cameras never come," and followed that with "Marcy Me," evoking Marvin Gaye in depicting the travails of life on the streets. The next song in that well-thought-out Big Apple trilogy was, of course, "New York State of Mind." But before he went into it, he couldn't help but flash a grin and compliment himself. "My transitions are incredible," the cocksure emcee boasted, and the crowd nodded their heads in collective agreement.
Jay-Z gave the Sixers a shout-out during his set, after the team visited him backstage just before he went on. After that meeting, Embiid spoke about Mill.
"We want to support Meek and we want to show him that the city's behind him and we're eagerly waiting for his return," the big man said. "So not only for me but also my teammates to come out and show that the city is clearly behind him, that's important."
The 23-year-old Embiid is friendly with the 30-year-old rapper, who has been a frequent front-row process truster at Sixers games.
"He's fun to be around, he's like any other human being," says Embiid, who took off his shirt and danced onstage with Mill during his show at the Wells Fargo in February. "The perception that everybody has of his past might be misleading, but he's a great guy."
"I'm close with a lot of people who are dealing with" Mill's case, Embiid said. "And in most cases of violating probation you don't usually get four years in prison, so definitely an injustice has been done. We just got to be here to make sure people are aware of it. Just to make sure that he gets out. That's why we're here."