No platinum rapper is quite like Meek Mill. The lifelong Philadelphian often sounds like a throwback, a hardcore East Coast shouter in an era overstuffed with Autotune-sweetened melodicists. His best tracks – “Dreams and Nightmares,” “Tupac Back,” “Levels” – are as profoundly memorable as any his megastar peers have produced. But Drake stans have Take Care, J Cole followers have 2014 Forest Hills Drive and Future acolytes have DS2. Even A$AP Rocky fans have Live. Love. A$AP. It’s unclear why Meek hasn’t achieved the same creative heights.
Perhaps it’s better to appreciate Meek Mill as an artist who can dazzle with short, incandescent bursts of energy. It’s odd to think of him as this generation’s Busta Rhymes or Ludacris, though, because he’s not a punchline act too distracted by his own jocularity. Meek Mill’s work has real soul and depth. He frequently addresses survivor’s guilt, and the kind of tensions that surface when a talented Black artist from a struggling community tries to bring his friends along for the journey. But his albums often sound riven by competing ambitions. There’s mixtape Meek, punching away with gloriously bare-knuckled thug rap. There’s “urban radio” Meek, wooing a girl with promises of luxury and hot sex while an R&B singer coos the chorus. There’s Meek’s pain, where he unfurls his troubles like a modern-day Bobby Womack. And there’s “litty” Meek, gamely keeping up with whichever melodic rapper happens to be burning brightest.
All those currents pulse through Expensive Pain, Meek Mill’s fifth album (not counting sundry mixtapes and a handful of EPs). It’s accompanied by fantastic cover art by Nina Chanel Abney illustrating a Black heteronormative male’s plight: the seduction of big-booty women, yachts, gambling dice, luxury cars and hot bikes. Meek can be so impressively self-aware that one wants him to carry those thoughts over an entire album. But sticking to one goal has never been Meek’s plan, as longtime listeners can confirm.
It’s hard to call Expensive Pain a disappointment because there’s a collective sense of gratitude that he’s even here. Years of battling with power-mad cops and court judges led to prison time and the hashtag #FreeMeekMill; stupid beefs with rappers and social media influencers, and a romance with rapper Nicki Minaj that grew sour lent fodder for internet mockery. When Meek Mill dropped Championships in 2019 and remade himself into an activist for criminal justice reform, he finally swept aside all the rap and bullshit of his career. Despite its aesthetic flaws, Championships represents the rapper at his iconic peak. It’s a moment that anyone would find difficult to match, much less top.
Meek Mill seems conscious of that. Song titles echo past heights: “Blue Notes 2,” “Cold Hearted III,” “Flamerz Flow,” the latter a nod towards his Flamerz mixtape series. “Ride for You” with Kehlani could be a replay of his 2015 hit with Nicki and Chris Brown, “All Eyes on You.” “Me (FWM)” reunites him with A$AP Ferg, with whom he made one of his better non-album tracks, 2015’s “B-Boy.” “Intro (Hate on Me)” is the kind of loud and splashy opener that’s his trademark, and a knowing reference to Nas and Puff Daddy’s 1999 shiny-suit colossus, “Hate Me Now.”
As for new flourishes, there are allusions to drill with “Outside (100 MPH)” and “Northside Southside,” the latter with UK rapper Giggs. He continues to experiment with melodic rap, with “On My Soul” sounding like a Lil Baby retread. (Incidentally, the latter appears alongside Lil Durk on “Sharing Locations.”) But “Love Train” is an impressive blend of rapped and sung vocals, even as he compares “hoes” to busted Rolex watches. “Take me away, take me away, all my pain expensive/I got people trying to take me out like I ain’t help invent ‘em,” he raps. Another highlight is “Love Money,” a lament against the corrosive effects of success.
Are a handful of great moments worth all the monotony of Expensive Pain? Any Meek Mill fan would tell you yes. The album doesn’t contain much that he hasn’t done better before, and he rarely sounds as good breaking bread with Billboard Hot 100 heroes like Young Thug and Lil Uzi Vert as he does by himself. But when he’s in a zone, railing valiantly against frenemies and past lovers real and perceived, there’s no one better.