“Nigga like the new Jay-Z” raps firebrand Meek Mill on “Tic Tac Toe.” “Poppin’ like Bad Boy in ’94, Big Poppa and Diddy,” he insists on “What’s Free.” Indeed, the shadow of the Biggie/Jay-Z/Nas era of critical and commercial dominance – circa 1996 to 2003 – looms large on Mill’s fourth studio album, Championships. He raps over the Lonnie Linston Smith sample from Jay’s “Dead Presidents” (“Respect the Game”), tries the same Phil Collins sample as Nas’ “One Mic” (“Intro”) and even rewrites B.I.G.’s “What’s Beef” with a cameo from Jay (“What’s Free”). All of this would be merely tribute, lip service and homage if Meek didn’t have emotional depth and skills for days. On much of Championships the Philly rapper displays the elements that made the New York greats so great.
Songs like “Trauma,” “What’s Free,” “Championships” and “Oodles O’ Noodles Babies” are some of the most deftly executed rap of the year because Meek ties in all his life experiences into a swirl where nothing seems separate – the personal and the political, the struggle and the success, the dreams and nightmares. These songs volley between the horrors he witnessed on the streets, the spoils of success, life under a deeply contested jail stint, institutionalized racism, squashing rap beef and an energized political platform focusing on reforming the prison industrial complex. He raps in “Trauma: “And in the 13th Amendment, it don’t say that we kings/They say we legally slaves if we go to the bing/ They told Kaep stand up [if] you wanna play for a team/And all his teammates ain’t saying a thing.”
There’s straight bangers too – a shout-off with Cardi B (“On Me”), a team up with Future and Young Thug that rides a repeating vocal curlicue and full of ooh-oohs (“Splash Warning”) and some barroom piano trap with Drake. The bloated 19-song tracklist means there’s a handful of love and/or sex songs worth skipping (though bilingual viral star Melii does have a scene-stealing cameo on “Wit the Shits”). The ultimate result is an inspired release that hearkens back to the Roc-a-Fella days of the mid-Aughts, full of diaristic writing, song-cry beats and ridiculous skills.