Meek Mill’s legal battles and subsequent advocacy for sentencing reform has made him a folk hero. Yet even before the “Free Meek Mill” T-shirts, the Philadelphia rapper born Robert Williams earned a reputation for perseverance, whether it was weathering the mockery that ensued after his 2015 rap battle with Drake resulted in a disappointing TKO loss, or enduring a two-year romance with Nicki Minaj that threatened to turn him into a gossip punchline (and yielded his biggest hit to date, the syrupy “All Eyes on You”). His defining track, the deathless 2012 banger “Dreams & Nightmares,” found him screaming into the void, unbowed over a track that shifted from a heavenly piano arpeggio to a stormy trap thunderstorm. It became a metaphor for a career that refuses to wither in spite of daunting odds.
Much like Meek Mill’s recent, galvanizing live appearances at Hot 97’s Summer Jam and the 2018 BET Music Awards, the four-track EP Legends of the Summer seems designed to sustain heightened public interest until he can record a proper follow-up to last year’s Wins & Losses. He capably distills all the usual elements of his major studio affairs. There’s a fire-breathing, elbow-swinging opener in “Milladelphia.” It’s followed by “Dangerous,” a radio-baiting R&Bae jam that sports cameos from the hook-slinging lothario Jeremih and the interchangeable rap singer PnB Rock. The third track is a thuggin’ in the club number, “1am,” that wouldn’t sound out of place on a mid-2000s album by 50 Cent’s G-Unit crew.
The closing number, “Stay Woke,” rewards our patience for sitting through Meek’s commercial gambits. It’s a lyrically complicated piece that finds Meek worrying over fake friends, sharing his gratefulness for the financial ability to buy his mother a house, admitting to past mistakes and, most importantly, connecting his experience to a generation of black men whose missteps elicit an unnecessarily draconian response from the criminal justice system. R&B singer Miguel’s serviceable chorus feels extraneous, but it helps sweeten Meek’s blocky, ultra-charged rhymes.
Perhaps the best thing about Legends of the Summer can’t be measured in song quality. Over a breezy 13 minutes, Meek Mill fills his listeners with hope that, yes, it is possible to survive and thrive in a country seemingly determined to deliver rough extrajudicial justice to people of color. The EP’s brevity works in its favor, allowing Meek to briefly engage his followers without settling into the kind of formulaic tedium that has sometimes marred his full-length albums. And it sets the stage for what may be the next phase of his career: a rap superstar fully aware of his cultural power. “I’ve got the key to the streets!” he boasts on “Milladelphia.” Yes, he does. The question now is what he will do with it.