This year has been friendly to street rappers. Right now, Future is experiencing a full career resurgence; Fetty Wap — who was an unknown a year ago — has three songs in the Top 20; and Meek Mill debuted at #1, selling more than 200,000 copies of his new album, Dreams Worth More Than Money. This is a stark contrast to the rap climate in which Meek has found himself for most of his career; where it appeared that street rap was being pushed further toward the margins of the genre. Rappers who sang and flirted with R&B were rap’s new royalty, but Meek stayed in his lane as a rapper — not just a rapper obsessed with the art of rapping (which his recent beef with Drake might imply). He kept to being a rapper that sought to highlight the struggles of his Philadelphia community even on the path to national fame.
Unlike many rappers whose earliest days can be scrubbed off the internet, or for previous generations left to unreleased cassettes and CD-Rs, Meek’s entire musical career has a digital trail. In his teenage years, he freestyled on the streets, and those raps would be included on bootleg rap DVDs. Back then, Meek Mill (or Millz) spit about the violence in his hometown — a subject he’s never stopped commenting on. These videos of Meek with fuzzy braids aren’t recent discoveries, as some have been sitting on YouTube for nearly a decade. Eventually Meek graduated from block rhymes to the Flamers mixtape series, which built enough buzz to get him signed with T.I. and Grand Hustle in the late 2000s. The partnership didn’t work out, but Meek later signed with Maybach Music, where he secured grounding for real success. Even with all the good fortune that’s come his way, the drive of his earlier rap music never left, as Meek continued to refine these thoughts and themes that remained in his life.
The last month must have been a strange one for Meek Mill. His second album is a success, he’s on tour with his partner Nicki Minaj, yet right now he’s the laughingstock of the rap and pop-culture worlds. In July, he tweeted accusations of ghost-writing at Drake. Drake hit back with a couple diss tracks. Meek hit back with his own. The internet deemed Meek’s diss lesser, and hit upon him with various memes that Drake used to great effect on the OVO Fest stage. A rough week for the rapper, but Meek’s been down before, and that’s never kept him out.
There is a misconception about Meek Mill — that he’s just LOUD: that his most notable attribute as a rapper is his intensity, and that what makes him compelling isn’t the words he says but how he says them. Such arguments can be made for many rappers and performers, but Meek Mill’s greatest gift is his words. Rap music continues to carry the microphone of black people, who are often ignored and not given a voice within or outside their community. Police brutality, street violence, and many issues that over the last year moved from the black community into the national conversation aren’t new to Meek. Yet when reduced down to the volume of his voice, the substance of Meek’s words is often dismissed. However, Meek Mill is right now experiencing a bit of a career second wind. He’s a rapper who’s always spoken about working-class communities; maybe it’s time for people to turn up their headphones and listen to what he’s saying.
10. “In My Bag” (from the Flamers mixtape, 2008)
“In My Bag” was Meek Mill’s first “hit.” It didn’t make a national splash, but it hinted at tangible success for the young Philadelphia rapper, who was already a mainstay in the city’s rap scene. Here, the energy that Meek displayed in his teenage years is concentrated into a burst of street pop rap. “In My Bag” was the type of single that maybe a decade earlier would’ve found reasonable rotation on MTV or BET, but for Meek it was a little too late, as rap’s mainstream was edging away from the streets. A proven freestyler, Meek’s recorded-in-the-booth music was still finding itself, but this was a brief flash of brilliance — and thankfully there was much more to come.
9. “Banned From TV” (from the Mr. Philadelphia mixtape, 2010)
Meek Mill’s major label career is experiencing a surprising second life right now. Dreams Worth More Than Money debuted at #1 — a position that, a year ago, with Meek behind bars, would’ve felt like a dream. Older rappers, or ones that start young, can have entire eras of their famous careers forgotten due just to being in the game long enough. “Banned From TV” — a freestyle over the classic Swizz Beatz instrumental — is a lost treat in which Meek proves that no matter the era, he’d be fighting for rap’s crown. Meek’s mixtape career started in the peak era of re-purposing older instrumentals, and “Banned From TV” posits a world where Meek is in his prime teaming with a just-buzzing Swizz Beatz, which — for a rap what-if — is a hard dream to pass.
8. “B Boy” (single, 2015)
Unfortunately, “B Boy” is probably destined to be lost to history. The 2015 single didn’t make the final tracklist of Dreams Worth More Than Money, and it didn’t even sneak on as a bonus track. Its accompanying clip was a fun scene of extravagance that could’ve made an amazing summer rap video, but sadly that wasn’t in the cards. Few would doubt the raw talent of Meek Mill versus Big Sean and A$AP Ferg; both rappers clearly stepped up for this moment of rhyming next to Philadelphia’s finest. Big Sean in particular stepped up with a verse including, “I got money bags under my eyes, ho, ’cause I ain’t sleep/ They all Goyard too ’cause I ain’t cheap/ Finally Famous Aura Gold is my I-N-C/ I put everything in motion like I-N-G.” A rap odd couple, sure, but after the electricity of “Burn,” it’s clear that Big Sean and Meek remain an underrated and under-realized duo.
7. “House Party” (from the Dreamchasers mixtape, 2011)
Meek Mill released two singles that made and him a rap household name: “Ima Boss” and “House Party.” The former, produced by Jahlil Beats, was an amazing street single that boomed out of cars with Jahlil Beats’ horn announcing Meek’s arrival before he could spit the instant-classic line: “Look I be riding in my old hood/ But I’m in my new whip.” But “House Party” is chosen here because it’s hard to imagine any other song given the attention to detail of Meek. Ciroc bottles flow, there is arrogant flaunting of wealth (“All these stones in my chain make me a Roc boy”), and of course sex comes into play right at the song’s jump. Meek’s expression of rap excess is typically reserved for his singles, and “House Party” remains a hard-to-beat moment of partying, but with every bit of detail open for interpretation.
6. “Rosé Red” (from the Flamers 3 mixtape, 2010)
There is a simple formula for the perfect Meek Mill song: one Jahlil Beats track + one energized Meek Mill. Flamers 3 is the tape where the chemistry between the two artists perfected itself — the frantic style of Jahlil Beats paired excellently with Meek’s hyperactive flow. “Rosé Red” is a straight-ahead party song, but Meek never lets the energy drop; where there might be some give or a moment to breathe, Meek never lets the momentum fall. In the years that followed, Meek and Jahlil found mainstream success with “Ima Boss” and to a lesser degree with “Burn” and “Monster,” but no matter how they switched up the style, the chemistry between the two remained.
5. “Tony Story Parts 1 & 2″ (from the Dreamchasers mixtape, 2011, and Dreams And Nightmares, 2012)
Meek Mill is a storyteller. Often he sticks to first-person, but for “Tony Story” and “Tony Story Part 2″ Meek removes himself from the shoes of the main character. Tony’s story of street revenge gone wrong is is familiar terrain for Meek, but it’s the details that make the tracks sting. When talking about Tony trying to act cool so close to the body he killed, Meek says, “Strapped up before he went he had to carry his ratchet/ He nervous, walking like he trying carry him faster/ Nigga even grabbed the shovel tried to bury him faster.” Meek never hides the sordid details of his past, but the “Tony Story” series allows for those talents to be leant to new characters. He steps into their minds to show that the twisted tales he speaks of involve people with plenty of weight on their shoulders.
4. “The Real” (from the Flamers 3 mixtape, 2010)
On the DJ version of Flamers 3, Meek’s opening line is repeated three times: “How my mom gonna pay the bills when these jobs ain’t hiring?” Released right in the middle of the recession, the line cut to circumstances that, for many Americans, was new, but for Meek Mill was a struggle he’d always known. At just 100 seconds long, Meek Mill spills out nearly every grievance he encountered during the two decades he spent walking the streets of Philadelphia. He laments that his mom cannot find work, he swears to confront the shooter that killed his father, and alerts youth that hitting the streets won’t solve, but only increase their strife. Flamers 3 is an end of an era, as Meek was about to cross over from a local hero to the national stage, but the emotional nerves he’d hit throughout his career were laid out here. If Meek needed an origin story, this was it.
3. “Lil Nigga Snupe” (from the Dreamchasers 3 mixtape, 2013)
Lil Snupe was one of the first artists Meek personally took under his wing: a young Baton Rouge rapper who rapped with the intensity of Lil Boosie and with Meek’s own eye for detail, all while still a teenager. The videos of them together shows an immeasurable amount of glee on Meek’s face watching his protégé. But before Snupe was able to enjoy any of the fruits of his talent, he was killed, and “Lil Nigga Snupe” was Meek’s tribute to his young partner. On record, Meek speaks about jail, less so what was inside, but in the way that those around him were alone facing jail and then didn’t come back his way once returning home. That betrayal from people so close to him informs much of the harshness in Meek’s music, and certainly “Lil Nigga Snupe.” Instead of festering in hate, on “Lil Nigga Snupe” Meek did what those around him didn’t do: stand by his fallen brother to lift him up.
2. “Middle Of Da Summer” (from the Dreamchasers mixtape, 2011)
Right in the middle of Meek Mill’s breakthrough mixtape, Dreamchasers, sits “Middle of Da Summer,” where Meek steps back to old days in the Philadelphia streets. Not afraid to adapt with the times, Meek Mill is at his core a classic street rapper — not a trap rapper in the post-Jeezy, post-Gucci, or even post-Keef mode. Meek’s predecessors are Philadelphia legends like Beanie Sigel, Freeway, and the classic Roc-A-Fella era of the late ’90s and early 2000s: the type of rappers who told harsh street tails over loving soul beats. The mood evokes afternoons at the park, dodging the summer heat, and block BBQs. Meek sees that, but is instead overwhelmed by scenes like: “I was only 13 I seen a puddle of blood/ Grown man lying there, he got one in his mug/ His grandma screaming told you about selling them drugs.” That’s how Meek bows from verse, another body in the street for another generation to weep.
1. “Dreams And Nightmares” (from Dreams And Nightmares, 2012)
Meek is frustratingly often reduced to a singular trait: his voice; the memes; his time in prison; his girlfriend; whatever allows someone on the outside to believe they know the real Meek Mill without attempting to know Meek Mill. In a way, “Dreams And Nightmares” took that position within his discography, in that it encapsulates so much about Meek Mill that it can overshadow all his other work. It starts with Meek wide-eyed, attempting to come to grips with the opportunities given to him and just how blessed he’s been to get to this moment of a debut album. Then it shifts; Meek’s voice loses its earnestness and instead sees a world not of opportunities but one that never wanted to give him a single chance. He yells over the haunting production to announce that life is bullshit, that the people who doubted him were wrong, and after years of climbing he’s the same nigga now looking down on the Philadelphia street that raised him. Meek remained humble, but thankfully never satisfied.