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November 29, 2018

Meek Mill's 'Championships' review: North Philly rapper fiery, focused on fourth studio album

Mill's newest record is a whirlwind of storytelling from a man with plenty to say

Meek Mill doesn’t waste any time amping up expectations on “Championships,” his fourth studio album out Friday: The introduction samples Phil Collins’ "In The Air Tonight," the ultimate tension-builder, while Mill raps about wearing the crown.

From that insurmountably high opening note, the North Philly native’s first full-length after serving five months in prison and turning into a surprising mainstream icon for the prison-reform movement, manages to keep soaring.

You can listen to the full album below:

Mill doesn’t wait to discuss those five months in prison. On the album’s second song, “Trauma”, Mill reflects on how quickly things went sideways: 

I went from selling out arenas to, s***, now I’m on sale … when they label you a felon, it’s like they’re telling you you’re not equal.” 

He routinely tackles systematic injustice, both in his case and across the country, throughout the record.

RELATED: Meek Mill shares two new songs on "The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon"

He feels like someone who isn’t just talking the “this trying experience showed me something new” talk: This is a whole new approach. Mill seems zeroed in, and he has a very clear purpose.

Of course, across 19 songs there are bound to be some lower-stakes tracks. The Cardi B-assisted “On Me” brings tales of Rolls Royces and women, like a younger Mill who never missed a beat. “Splash Warning” is another feature cut, this time squeezing Future, newcomer Roddy Ricch, Young Thug, and Mill into less than 180 seconds. It’s eccentric and it’s new, but it’s not terribly substantive.

The ballyhooed collaboration with enemy-turned-pal Drake, "Going Bad", features a playfully off-kilter beat while Mill says there's no neighborhood in Philadelphia he can't go, which is true.

(Mill also raps, "Me and Drizzy back to back is getting scary," at one point, referencing the second home-run diss track Drake sent Mill's way. Clearly, the two are letting bygones be bygones.)

RELATED: Meek Mill talks turning down an invite to the White House, and his Drake beef

These songs are fine and sometimes fun, if also obvious filler. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that a man with so much time on his hands has an abundance of ideas, and sometimes stray songs like “Splash Warning” seem almost out of place, perhaps better used as loose singles released at a later date.

The emotional highs in the songs which Mill clearly poured himself into, though, are astoundingly high. 

The title track is an impossibly smooth, four-minute walk through Mill’s numerous obstacles and accomplishments. “Oodles O’ Noodles Babies,” the early single, doesn’t let a bar go to waste and features one of the most affecting quartets of his career: 

“Ain’t nobody to give me no hope/I hope my momma ain’t doin’ no coke/I used to wish that my daddy was living/I had a dream that I’d seen him with ghosts.”

And then there’s “What’s Free,” a six-minute fire-and-brimstone treatise with gaudy one-two feature appearances by Jay-Z and Rick Ross. It’s one of the album’s highest points, if not the peak. Backed by tense strings, Mill recounts the ways he’s been talked down to by people in positions of authority who discount him just because of his race, and because he comes from North Philly. He drops a particularly arresting four lines countering those ideas: 

“Tell them how we’re funding all these kids to go to college/Tell them how we’re ceasing all these wars, stopping violence/Trying to fix the system and the way that they designed it/I think they want me silenced.”

Mill's walking the walk, and then talking the talk. You can't fault him if you can't find the fault in his approach.

Mill said in a Vulture interview this week that he’s made it a point to be more outspoken because he feels a new kind responsibility. It’s clear he’s taken this approach and pushed it directly into his music. His ideas are clear, the production is varied and beautiful.

The 31-year-old sounds reinvigorated, and both his music and his fans are better for it.

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