Review: ‘Championships’

Meek Mill rises from the trenches to deliver the most assured album of his career.

From meme magnet to comeback king; the past two years have not been kind to Meek Mill. It feels like an age ago when Maybach Music’s Meek Mill was crashing DatPiff servers with 2 million mixtape downloads in 24 hours. Yet the law has never escaped the rapper. A probation string lasting 14 years has hung over his head, sentenced yet again in late 2017 for violating parole. Whether the memers adopted synthetic support for Meek Mill is another question, but one narrative was undeniable – Meek Mill had become the underdog. And everyone loves routing for the underdog. The bittersweet Wins & Losses released the summer before Meek’s publicised arrest adorned moments of brilliance, though felt uninspired and contained inapt collaborations. With the public rallying behind him, Championships holds the pressure of a football final; it’s all or nothing.

If Wins & Losses was Meek’s comeback, Championships is his victory lap. On Championships, Meek Mill is a changed man. So changed that it has kindled the best album of his career. Across the 19 tracks, a hunger possesses Meek Mill in ways that have never been present before, ushering revitalised content into the album’s best tracks.

The rapper stamps his intent on his conventional “Intro” track. Barely leaving a bar to breathe, the opener is a stellar reintroduction to a rapper who, as Meek repeatedly puts it, been through the trenches and back. Of course, Meek saves the bulk of his message for succeeding songs, but the “Intro” is the MC’s entrance song into the arena, in line with his most iconic intros (“Dreams & Nightmares”, “Wins & Losses”).

Championships proves that conscious Meek is greater than flexing Meek. The album’s strongest songs channel Meek’s conscious persona. “Trauma” addresses the mental effects of life in prison, dropping powerful lines communicating the anxiety of his everlasting court cases (“Watching a black woman take my freedom” / “Invisible shackles on the king, ’cause shit, I’m on bail / I went from selling out arenas now, shit, I’m on sale”). “Oodles o’ Noodles Babies” and the title track “Championships” straddle the same avenue, with the latter track boasting the best summary of Meek Mill’s life in his entire career. It is empowering and emphatic, serving as the non-chronological ending credits to an autobiography of Meek Mill.

The peak of Meek Mill’s consciousness arrives on the spectacular “What’s Free”. The track cleverly flips The Notorious B.I.G.’s “What’s Beef”, sampling its beat and interpolating the hook to dissect racial injustice in America. Each rapper tackles the subject differently. Rick Ross opens his account detailing the extravagance of emancipation (“I keep stacking my money I need a ladder by summer”), and ending with the harsh reality of undermining the value of freedom by referencing Tekashi 6ix9ine‘s arrest (“Screaming gang gang now you wanna rap / Racketeering charges caught him on the tap”). Plus, the confession “Over a decade and never nobody’s favourite” is a rare look into Ross’ insecurities, who certainly deserves greater acclaim than he gains. Meanwhile, Meek Mill highlights his time without freedom over the haunting beat (“Oh, say you can see, I don’t feel like I’m free / Locked down in my cell, shackled from ankle to feet”).

Though the MMG MCs hold their own, Jay Z steals the show with rap verse of the year. In 48 bars, the veteran intertwines metaphors and wordplay with an aggression towards oppressors that wasn’t displayed on 2017’s 4:44. Every other line is a quotable, presenting Jay in his finest form for several years. Jay Z’s typical vaunts are balanced with comprehensive commentary on slavery that can easily be lost in translation, exercised smoothly in the opening couplets (“In the land of the free, where the blacks enslaved / Three-fifths of a man, I believe’s the phrase”). The tone in Jay Z’s delivery is patronising; his success contradicts American values. It is only fair he continues to flex how much money he owns, long as it maintains his signature wit. “What’s Free” is a 2018 conscious vignette, layered in ways that evoke multiple epiphanies with every relisten and each bar digested.

Elsewhere, Championships provides a balance in content between conscious rap and Mill’s usual flexing. Bangers such as “Pay You Back” with 21 Savage and “Stuck in My Ways” are churned in signature fashion. “Uptown Vibes” is a stabilised crossover between reggaeton and hip hop without the pop gimmick, featuring an energetic performance by Meek Mill and a memorable verse by Fabolous. Luckily, the offbeat verse by Anuel Aa is short-lived and spares the appeal of the track.

With production, Championships varies between seasoned hip hop beats and contemporary trap rap. Samples from Biggie (“What’s Free”), Jay Z (“Respect the Game”) and The Weeknd (“Cold Hearted II”) power the appeal of Championships before passing the torch to Tay Keith and other newcomers for satisfying tracks like “Tic Tac Toe”. These samples could be interpreted as cheat codes (rap fans will impulsively value the song), but are an essential element to the album.

Although it warrants few skips, Championships falters in its rare moments of filler. Tracks like “On Me” and “Wit the Shits” pale in comparison to the substance found elsewhere on Championships. “Splash Warning” is an unbearable inclusion, foiled by Future’s obnoxious performance and irritating production; the sole song worthy of removal from the tracklist. There are no redeeming qualities to the song unlike the relationship cuts (“Almost Slipped”) and R&B crossovers (“24 / 7″ ,”Dangerous”), which at least offer chemistry between the performers and melodic production. “Going Bad”, the long-awaited reunion track with Drake, is enjoyable, however doesn’t set off any fireworks.

Closing track “Cold Hearted II” ends with a memorable monologue, wiping any doubts (if there were any) of Meek Mill’s authenticity. It summarises the values Meek Mill holds close to his chest; friendship and loyalty.

Determination defines Championships. Aside a handful of uninspired filler tracks, Championships is not a return to form but rather exceeds previous form, boldly communicating Meek’s desire to control the gavel. Hunger, fresh content and varied production takes Meek Mill to a new level, solidifying his name in the conversation of the best rappers of this generation. Even if no one else declares it, Meek Mill knows he is a champion.

Rating: 8 / 10

Favourite tracks: “What’s Free”, “Championships”, “Uptown Vibes”, “Cold Hearted II”, “Pay You Back”, “Intro”, “Trauma”, “Oodles o’ Noodles Babies”, “Dangerous”

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