Genre: Philly Rap
Favorite Tracks: “What’s Free,” “Oodles O’ Noodles Babies,” “Pay You Back”
For the first time in his long and tumultuous career, Meek Mill finally feels like he feels comfortable in his own skin. While the Philadelphia rapper’s talent has been on display sporadically over the years, with little moments here and there that would tantalize the listener into seeing what his ceiling could be in rap culture, because of a combination of immaturity and real life adversity he never really put it all together. After a long journey in the public eye that took him from being a heel of many a Drake stan’s jokes, to becoming a face of the injustice of the criminal justice system, to soundtracking one of the greatest underdog championship runs in the modern Super Bowl Era, he features a newfound veteran swagger and perspective on CHAMPIONSHIPS—his most fully-realized project to date.
Of course, in most of these cases, Meek Mill never sought out any of this, it was forced onto him; it truly is amazing how quickly the internet can take you from the face of failure into the sound of triumph by sheer virtue of circumstance. Now with more time under his belt and a lengthy humbling process, he sees on CHAMPIONSHIPS how that process of pop culture works and what turns its wheels, applying it directly to music, which has never felt as resonant or alive as it does here. Never shying away from his newfound place in pop culture, he actually digs deeper into it, with legitimately insightful and provocative lyrics.
Meek has always rapped about the circumstances he was raised in to differing levels of effectiveness, but here he exemplifies a new level of focus, making his lyrics more meaningful than ever before. On “What’s Free,” the biggest headline-producing song off the album, he goes deeper into the messed-up nature of his, and so many others’, incarcerations. Of course, that’s not why the song is producing headlines. Instead, it’s in large part because of a Jay-Z verse where he (allegedly) takes shots at Kanye and a long laundry list of accomplishments. That, plus a Rick Ross verse is enough to let this track go off the rails, but Meek stays focused and his verse ties all of it together and creates a resonant song.
On “Oodles O’ Noodles Babies,” you can really hear all the improvements and focus come together. The production is minimal and doesn’t try to do much, but like the best Meek Mill songs, the lyrics come at you fast and quick. You can really hear him hone in on the pain of childhood as someone who is enough years removed from it to really understand the gravity of the situation—and not only for him, but for the people that grew up with him as well. A less mature Meek would’ve started raising his voice to hammer home his message, but he takes a different route and strips back the beat during some of the most hauntingly descriptive lyrics. It really focuses on some truly disturbing imagery of murder in North Philly, a vision of lost youth. The effectiveness of the track shows so much growth as he leaves a lot of the anger on the drawing board and instead takes a larger world view into account, an ultimately much more somber version of events.
The entire project isn’t entirely an exercise exploring the sad and depressing realities of North Philly politics. Meek gives a lot of entertaining and fun songs that don’t feel compromised by the greater message of the album. Songs like “On Me” and “Pay You Back” are absolute bangers, jams you’ll be playing in gyms and clubs alike thanks in large part to two electric guest features in Cardi B and 21 Savage, with verses that are so good they match the energy of the entire album. And you can equate all that to probably the biggest and most anticipated song on the album, “Going Bad,” which reunites former collaborators Meek and Drake after a long and public beef. The track is the ultimate sign of maturation for Meek as he buries the hatchet, showing his growth. As for the song, it takes no time jumping into what he loves about their collaborations: shit talking. Two of the best shit-talkers in rap just talking shit for three minutes over a slapping-ass beat makes for a fun time.
CHAMPIONSHIPS feels a lot like a mid-2000s event rap album, in the same vein as a 50 Cent or Jay-Z release at the height of their powers. A lot of that can be attributed to the brilliant production, with a who’s who of currently hot producers mixing with some veteran heavyweights. Mill has always been known for having some hit intros, but the Phil Collins “In the Air Tonight” sample is simply amazing, and the drum drop of that album opener flips to the trap drums in an immediate jolt of energy. After that, songs like “Trauma” and “Respect the Game” might as well be taken out of a Jadakiss album from the early aughts. The title track is a Just Blaze-produced track, and you can’t tell me different. The clean-cut, semi-nostalgic production is elevated by Meek’s always-present energy and enthusiasm, the same type of enthusiasm that led to most of his previous criticisms early on in his career. But Meek enlists hit producers the likes of Tay Keith, Wheezy, Cardo, and Bangladesh to make CHAMPIONSHIPS feel like it belongs in 2018, and he channels that energy into making his most important words be hard-hitting, accenting the more important lyrics instead of just letting it all loose at once and diluting his message. The interplay between the two styles makes every song feel like a fresh and enjoyable listen through and through.