NEW YORK (AP) — Meek Mill is not behind prison bars. He’s no longer required to check in with parole officers. But despite this freedom, the rapper has not fully rid himself of the invisible shackles that still confine him.
“I just feel like I’m a pullover away from running into the wrong cop, getting into a wild situation,” said the 34-year-old rapper, born Robert Williams. “My whole adult life, I was on probation the whole way. So, it’s like a natural feeling. I would be lying if I said I felt totally free.”
Feelings of uncertainty, along with fears of distrust and betrayal created from the ghosts of his past, have been seared into his new album, “Expensive Pain.”
Staying true to his brand, Meek Mill’s latest project explores balancing fame and wealth while carrying the mental scars from a rough Philadelphia upbringing. Like most things of value, success has come with a cost.
“In the hood, I had ‘poverty pain’…when I turned to the streets, I’m 15, 16 years old, not knowing what I’m going to eat at night, not knowing what you’re going to wear tomorrow because we left the house. Your mom at work or dad dead,” said the rapper who was 5 when his father was murdered. “This pain I’m getting now, it’s like I’m losing family members because I ain’t letting people borrow money.”
“Expensive Pain” is Meek Mill’s first full-length project since 2018’s Grammy-nominated “Championships” which came out seven months after his prison release following a 2017 sentence for probation violations involving a decade-old gun and drug possession case. The Pennsylvania trial judge sentenced him to two to four years in prison, but a court ordered his release in April 2018.
On July 24, 2019, an appeals court tossed his conviction over doubts about the arresting officer’s credibility. The next month, Meek Mill pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor gun charge in a deal that resolved the 2007 arrest, ending his legal limbo with the criminal justice system. He is now an activist for justice reform.
Meek Mill’s 18-track “Expensive Pain,″ featuring production from Boi-1da, Cardo, in-house Dream Chasers producer Nick Papz and others, boasts some of hip-hop’s young stars such as Lil Baby, Lil Uzi Vert, Young Thug, Lil Durk and R&B singer Kehlani. He is planning an “Expensive Pain: Meek Mill & Friends” concert on Oct. 23 at Madison Square Garden.
Known for gritty lyrics and rapid, aggressive rhyme delivery, Meek Mill expands his repertoire this time around. He takes a page from his younger collaborators by experimenting with melodic rap — the sound that now dominates hip-hop — on songs like “On My Soul,” “We Slide” featuring Young Thug and “Angels (RIP Lil Snupe).”
“Through quarantine, I had like a vicious writer’s block because every time I try to go to a next level, I get real uncomfortable in trying new things. And melody is a lane where all the younger guys been in,” said Meek Mill.
Roc Nation executive Mike Brinkley says Meek Mill is one of a handful of current artists able to bridge between older generations of rap fans who place emphasis on lyrics and writing and younger fans who tend to fixate on the overall vibe of the music.
“He can still get the respect of the older hip-hop generation — the Jays (Jay-Z), the Nases with his lyrical ability — but also will still relate and still appeal to these younger artists,” said Brinkley.
On “Halo,” which features rising R&B singer Brent Faiyaz, Meek Mill illustrates the juxtaposition of making it out of an impoverished community while family and friends remain.
“You’re living in so much trauma and buried in trauma, you never even get a chance to really develop and become the person you’re supposed to be,” said Meek about Philadelphia, which had 499 murders in 2020. “You see somebody get murdered yesterday, you ain’t going to be thinking about that for a week…You’re gonna be thinking about that for like 12 years on a daily basis. And if something else happens next week in your neighborhood, it’s gonna pile up.”
The album is not all tales of street life. There are plenty of tracks like “Outside (100 MPH)” and “Sharing Locations,” featuring Lil Baby and Lil Durk, that celebrate the pleasures that come with being a major rap artist.
“Hot” with Moneybagg Yo and “Me (FWM),” are club-ready bounce tracks, and “Ride for You” with Kehlani is a feel-good song showcasing the lost art of the hip-hop and R&B duet.
Meek Mill also reveals small glimpses of life as a dad, mentioning his two sons on the album’s title track.
In August, Meek Mill received the Nelson Mandela Changemaker Award for his work as co-chair with the REFORM Alliance. Jay-Z, Meek Mill and others formed the coalition to lobby for changes to state probation and parole laws.
He may not have envisioned his legal woes would spur him to social activism or seek changes in the type of neighborhoods that he grew up in, but he’s not running from that work.
“He tries to be as positive as he can and be a positive influence without being preachy,” said Brinkley. “He’s open about, ‘Look, I make mistakes every day. But try to look at what I do and try another way.’”
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