From the summer of 2015 to the release of his album Wins & Losses in August 2017, Philadelphia-bred Meek Mill stood with Drake, Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole and Nicki Minaj among mainstream-rap’s elite. Last week his run was been cut short by a run-in with the criminal justice system, revealing a link between hip-hop and the carceral state that can’t be severed by riches or fame. The enduring alloy of race and class corralled Meek’s legacy in an iron cage, far from the adulating fans and platinum record sales of his rise and tragically close to the bottom of the American social order that he started from.
During that 18-month run, Meek’s delivery sounded something like the sound of a caged bird trying to free itself. In a 2015 Hot 97 interview released a week after his breakthrough album Dreams Worth More Than Money, he intimated that several of the record’s tracks were recorded as a prison stint stemming from a petty violation of his parole loomed over him. The tracks to which Meek refers—particularly “Cold Hearted” and “Lord Knows”—comprise some of the most unflinching songs that gangsta rap has to offer. Meek’s vulgar alchemy of crass materialism, abrasive masculinity and conflicted introspection stand with the film Scarface as testaments to personal resilience in post-Reagan America. Sans solutions to poverty and disprivilege, narratives of self-determination have risen to the fore of our popular culture. Meek’s stanzas belong in this context.
For proof of Meek’s technical abilities, pay attention to the relentless barrage of triplets and run-on rhymes on “Lord Knows.” The first torrent starts with the line “They say I’m the messiah, you rappers is liars,” then ends a dozen breathless bars later with a self-conscious “hold up…from balling I’m tired.” Soundtrack composer Ludwig Göransson lifted these vocals for the 2015 Rocky-redux Creed, emphasizing Meek’s triplets with thundering drums. The resulting track scored a rousing training montage in Creed, rife with speeding Philly dirtbikes and chest-thumping machismo, and with it Meek cemented his legacy as the Greatest Workout-Mixtape Rapper of his generation.
How fitting, then, that riding one of the very same dirtbikes would reintroduce Meek to the criminal justice system he’d narrowly escaped. When he was a teenager, Meek Mill—born Robert Rihmeek Williams on May 6, 1987—was arrested for illegally possessing a firearm. After serving an eight-month sentence, he was placed on a probationary period that has lasted virtually his entire adult life. After riding a dirtbike illegally on the set of a video shoot in New York City in August, Meek was arrested again, but had all charges dropped. A Philadelphia judge—apparently bitter that Meek Mill refused to do her a professional favor—sentenced the rapper to a two- to four-year sentence anyway.
In inner cities across the country, the act of riding dirtbikes has been intensely criminalized. Seattle filmmaker Rafael Flores covered the Bay Area incarnation of the phenomenon in his 2009 Cannes-selected short film The Scraper Bike King. An Atlanta city council member told NPR earlier in 2017 that “[urban bikers] make noise. It’s scaring motorists. These are people who, basically, it’s all about the thrill for them.” In Meek’s hometown of Philadelphia, the dirtbike sequence in Creed reflects the real-life fact that the city’s dispossessed youth use urban bike riding as a form of escape, a petty rebellion against capitalism’s claustrophobic failures in urban America.
Meek Mill has largely avoided commenting on politics in his recent rise. But when combined with the desperation of his vocal delivery, the allusions he’s made to our political situation speak volumes. The cover of the 2016 mixtape Dreamchasers 4 shows Meek—a victim of police brutality as a teenager—bandaged and bruised behind a superimposed image of his police rap sheet. In a freakishly intense freestyle on Funkmaster Flex’s radio show in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, Meek referenced Hillary Clinton’s complicity with the construction of the modern carceral state, rapping “superpredators was what they said of us/Said it made us cold, but really that shit affected us.”
Meek’s embrace of explicit political themes in his work were less a response to the rise of Trump and more a function of the Obama years, an era when a Black head-of-state presided over the biggest prison population in world history. Pundits who debate “class versus race” miss a crucial point: In America, racial identity is largely a proxy for class, if not caste. Be it liberalism or conservatism, any social philosophy that does not account for the specific ways that capitalism devalues and despoils Black life by tying it to exploitative industries and the prison-industrial complex is incomplete. In 1964, Malcolm X said, “If you’re black, you were born in jail.” Here in 2017, we’re still wondering how a judge with a grudge can consign a Black millionaire to a cage on a whim.
“Young Black America,” from Meek Mill’s 2017 album Wins & Losses, is a bittersweet listen, as its author is about to lose precious years of his life to an unjust criminal justice system. “Just minding my business, just telling my story,” Meek raps, “all guts, no glory, been going on before me.”