To round out Hip Hop’s robust year, Meek Mill’s Championships has arrived with dozens of headlines to accompany its release.
Aaron McKrell (three-year HipHopDX contributor): I’ll say this; Meek showed a lot of growth on this album. But he’s now set a precedent for himself content-wise. Unless it’s a mixtape, he can’t really go back to the same old same old.
After listening a few more times, the first half of this album is phenomenal, but the second half drags a bit. Songs like “Oodles O’ Noodles Babies” and “Championships” are inspiring and reflective in a true Philadelphian manner, but the truly engaging joints are the ones on which he reflects on his life in prison. If you do time, real-time, it changes you. I’ve seen it in friends before. Meek is, for better and worse, different for the injustice he faced. “Trauma” and “What’s Free” encapsulate the dual maturity and well-earned cynicism – one could just call it realism – that Meek holds post-prison, while the aforementioned “Championships” keeps his positive spirit alive. And, yes, JAY-Z’s op-ed-like verse on “What’s Free” is track theft, and one of the most important of this year.
But what really gets me is “Cold Hearted II.” Everyone focused so much on the macro aspects of Meek’s prison sentence, but the micro components – struggle exposing fake friends, for instance – apparently stung as badly as any robe-and-gavel could have, and Meek makes you feel his pain.
Dante Smith (HipHopDX Social Media Manager): As a Philly native, I can say the city is PROUD of this album. It’s a personal album filled with growth, as an artist’s growth is important. This album has more substance to it. Shit, I grew up an Oodle N Noodles baby, so I relate 100 percent.
Everything is just in true Philly “grimy” fashion like the link up with Cardi B on the track “On Me.” That’s a straight “ha ha” to his ex-girlfriend Nicki Minaj.
Dana Scott: (seven-year HipHopDX contributor): This album was a manifestation of him back in 2011 being the “Tupac Back” (the jail version) that was the vehicle for his career and I can’t totally knock it for what it’s worth.
I just think this is a big moment for him and that’s how the album will be remembered in his catalog. The political stuff puts him in a new light without being too boring.
It’s not a classic by any stretch, but Championships is showing that he’s gotten away from a lot of bullshit that ran himself into a corner on past albums and some corny songs when he was riding high and dating Nicki.
Scott Glaysher (two-year HipHopDX contributor): I agree with pretty much everything that’s being said here, especially the “inspiring and reflective” nature of the album. It’s also nice to hear Meek take a step back from his often mind-numbing Rolex talk that bogged down his previous releases like DC3 and dial in more so on his rollercoaster past three years.
Dana: “What’s Free?” is the political angle felt in this Trump America with people of color as targets and a necessary rhetorical question in the form of an answer.
Aaron: The album is certainly boosted by the context swirling around it, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Meek went through hell and has come out on the other side smelling like roses. More power to him, especially since he’s crafting very good music.
Dana: The “championship” on here is learning from his mistakes, losing “the Queen” in his life, losing in a humiliating fashion to a non-street dude, and still coming out on top with the support of the people. “Going Bad” with Drake or even rapping over “Back To Back” on Flex proves that he learned how to win again from his loss. So, he’s the “People’s Champ” of the moment.
Trent Clark (HipHopDX Editor-in-Chief): I’m actually very disappointed in the originality of this project and I’m surprised you guys aren’t either.
The album’s biggest moments are regurgitated. Biggie’s “What’s Beef”? Phil Collins’ “In The Air Tonight”? Mobb Deep’s “Get Away”? This is damn near a mixtape. That Future joint “Splash Warning” sounds like JAY-Z’s “Dirt Off Your Shoulder” and “used to be my dog, he was in my left titty” is from DMX’s “We Don’t Give a Fuck” ——one of the hardest rap records ever I may add.
You can’t lay claim to top props; top musical euphoria by riding another record’s wave. In Hip Hop’s commercial heyday — the 90s — the sample jack was a fairly new thing so it was fresh and exciting. Now, in the streaming era, I deem it to be a lazy approach. They’re taking advantage of kids who don’t know any better but the fact these songs don’t go the distance as the ones they sampled from speak to their quality.
Aaron: I love the samples, particularly on “What’s Free” and “Respect the Game.” The trap touch makes it a beautiful marriage of the old and new. We can’t have a double standard and laud 90s rappers for jazz samples and 2000s rappers for soul samples and then call 2010s rappers tired for using rap samples. It’s 2018. Today’s rappers didn’t grow up on James Brown. They grew up on JAY-Z. And I’ll take a repurposing of “Dead Presidents II” over a generic trap beat any day of the week.
Trent: Repurposing popular samples and using generic trap beats are equally as bad. No one-up points for either.
Aaron: I disagree, because if we’re doing that, are we knocking sampling entirely? There’s a lot of cats out today that do that.
Trent: Hip Hop music was built on sampling music. There’s no way around its origin or history.
When Hip Hop music became lucrative, stipulations regarding sampling began to occur. Peep the reissue of Wiz Khalifa’s Kush & OJ. It had to be altered just to make it onto streaming for the first time.
So there’s no knock on the art of sampling; there never should be. My knock is using songs with proven melodies and reception — and not even chopping them up so that the Hip Hop artist can make it their own. But notice how the actual craft of “diggin'” became virtually extinct when everything switched to digital. When you have a climate that doesn’t stress originality, this is the result.
Scott: When Trent drops nuclear knowledge like this it makes me think: “do I really love this music or do I just love the fact that Meek is back with a listenable release?”
But I think you are downplaying how big of a song “Going Bad” truly is. Not only does Wheezy cook up a trunk-rattling beat but both Drake and Meek get busy with bars. I mean, who doesn’t crack a smile when Meek says “Me and Drizzy back-to-back, it’s gettin’ scary.”
Trent: He and Drake reunited after all that “beef” to simply to give us a flossy track. He and Cardi settled for simply standing next to each other instead of addressing the pink elephant in the room. “100 Summers” sounds like A Boogie With Da Hoodie song he didn’t use. This is a real linear album and it didn’t have to be.
Aaron: While I agree “Going Bad” is a jam, but it’s not the collaboration of gargantuan proportions it should have been. Meek-Drake was the beef of the decade and should have been resolved with an epic collaboration.
And sure, there are some not-so-great moments. The album wears at 19 tracks. Meek lightens the mood with carefree songs, and at best – like “On Me” and “Splash Warning” – he and his guests are supremely entertaining. At worst, though, songs like “Almost Slipped” and “Tic Tac Toe” are frustrating because they detract from an otherwise great album. And no, that “Going Bad” joint is not awesome. It should have been more Jay-Nas “Black Republicans,” and less De Niro-Pacino in Righteous Kill.
Dante:Coming from the City of Brotherly Love, Meek’s album is a “championship” in music brought to the people. He’s staying true to the core rapper where Philadelphians discovered him through the Flamerz and Dreamchasers mixtapes it felt good to hear Meek in is prime.
Scott: The more I listen to the album the more I think I like the idea of Meek’s “comeback” more than the actual music here.
For example, when talking to people this weekend about the album all we’ve talked about is Jay’s verse and the prospects of Watch The Throne 2. Which, doesn’t really speak to the other 50 verses on this album.
I guess in this case the narrative trumps the actual music and blinds me a bit from the album’s unoriginality.
Listening back again and then cruising through Meek’s back catalog I still think there are a few joints on here that would make a Greatest Hits album. “What’s Free,” “Going Bad” and “Uptown” hold the same weight to me as something like “Burn,” “off The Corner” and “Dreams & Nightmares”. You could argue there’s a little bit of recency bias there but those three songs are very re-listenable to me.
Trent: I still maintain my sentiment that Meek’s comeback was premature for him artistically. Yes, in a perfect world, he gets released from prison, makes new music and shoots straight to the top of the singles and album charts. In the real world, there’s a refractory period needed to come back down from a life-altering experience and this album doesn’t feel like that period was honored.
In my unhumble opinion, the best songs are “Oodles O’ Noodles Babies” and the title track. They showcase that jail-hardened lyricism you know was coming with this project.
But they’re not hits. They don’t move the needle in this climate. Which is why you have all my aforementioned gripes and “Dangerous” sneaking their way onto the final product.
Dana: I’m with Trent, and Will.i.am on this. Today’s artists are picking from the lowest hanging fruit. Perhaps this album was rushed a bit to capitalize on his comeback buzz. But then again, not everyone can be Gucci and come back swinging with hits out the gate. But Meek’s not terrible here.
I think his collab partners are better picked than the beats, and I was hoping for something different. However, I don’t think he wanted to stray far from what people know him for.
He hasn’t gotten all his swagger back but he’s getting there.
Aaron: Overall, this album is authentic.
I had a friend get locked up, and the system did everything it collectively fucking could to keep this kid in prison, from planting shit on him to hiring a psychiatrist to tell him he wasn’t worth shit and would never be shit.
He got out and had the same determination/jaded viewpoint that Meek has. A kind of “they want me to lose, so I have to do everything in my power to win” that permeates cuts like “Cold Hearted II”, the title track, “Oodles O Noodles Babies”, “Trauma”, and even gives an edge in his voice on cuts like “On Me.”
This shit is real, and it’s something a lot of people can either indirectly or directly relate to.
Dante: I agree with Aaron. Coming from Philly prison reform is something that needs to be, and has to be addressed. I have multiple family members doing 15+ year bids for non-violent, drug-related offenses.
My final rating is 3.9.
Scott: When Meek is in his proverbial “bag” he can flow better than almost anyone. The Philly grit is spread across these beats with such silkiness that I don’t think is rivaled. Especially from something with such conviction in his voice, tone and delivery.
I think there are two big records here. Obviously “What’s Free” Which I truly believe will exist well into 2019. Also! Am I the only who has had “Going Bad” on repeat? It’s up there with “Amen” and “RICO” for me which are both highly re-listenable songs.
Aaron: Why the fuck am I the only one bringing up “Cold Hearted II”?
Trent: You know Meek was going for that “Dreams and Nightmares” feel with his intro and his performance was pretty stellar. But will this song ever stand on its own, be a life soundtrack for ears for the next 30 years? “In The Air Tonight” is one of the most heralded records of all time. I’m gonna go ahead and make the ballsy prediction that Meek’s “Intro” will not match that peak.
And that’s pretty much what I feel listening to this album as a whole. There are too many consistent yellow flags to make it enjoyable for me. I personally can’t go past 3.4.
Aaron: This is way better than a 3.4. It’s only fair to give this record a 3.7-4.0.
Context has to be considered. In 45’s law and order talk, this album is important, no matter how flawed it is. Will “Respect the Game” be more celebrated than “Dead Presidents II,” or the intro be more celebrated than DMX’s “I Can Feel It”? Hell no! So I understand where you’re coming from. But I still appreciate the homage and the tracks in their own right. If we’re going solely based on what will last, half this trap shit should get a 2.5.
The “big” record. Hit wise there is none. But career-defining wise? The title track. It tells his story, at least the story that has dominated conversation around him for the past year, in a raw and authentic manner.
Dana: Maybe this album should’ve been a two-to-three person collab with seven tracks, only to have more of a focus and get a higher rating, less about what’s seems scattered if that’s the devil’s advocate about it.
This album is his more introspective and he talks about not trapping anymore in “Tic Tac Toe” with Kodak Black. On a lot of the earlier Meek albums, they were more aspirational. Like Dante said, a song like “Oodles & Noodles Babies” or “Trauma” is much more relatable for the hood and shows he’s come back down to earth and becoming more “woke” from his time in prison. The “Uptown Vibes” record is more for the NYC-to-Philly connection, plus with the reggaeton with Anuel AA. The beat shifting to reggaeton briefly makes it seem a bit too busy and not a good match at the end, though.
Some of the greats must have those moments when they come back to become that. Nas had one with Nastradamus and “Takeover” from JAY-Z in order to light another fire under him to make Stillmatic. Same for LL Cool J on Walking With A Panther to make Mama Said Knock You Out and then Mr. Smith after people wrote him off.
I’m at 3.9.