On a sweltering Friday afternoon in mid-July, people of all ages cheerfully rode on the pump tracks of the Brooklyn Bike Park in Williamsburg. Helmetless riders sped up and down the track's dirt mounds, hitting light bunny hops and wheelies, sweating profusely in the near-100 degree weather. The park had been closed to the public, and unlimited cookout food and Belaire champagne were on offer. Teenagers and adults alike wore T-shirts and carried hand towels that read "Wins & Losses," with the words set inside of a red rectangle not unlike the logo of the iconic streetwear brand Supreme. Shade was scarce. I scrambled for any patch of it, trying to avoid the heat as I ate a turkey burger. Thirty minutes in, an excited whisper went up through the crowd: "Yo, there go Meek!"
The rapper Meek Mill drew a crowd around him as he entered the park. Surrounded by bodyguards, he walked toward the bike path, his body motions more fluid than the typically stiff, statuesque poses he makes on Instagram would suggest, his shoulders hunched and long arms swaying as he moved. He wore a green and black tracksuit in spite of the unbearable New York City humidity. At 6'3", he towered over most of his fans, who hovered in excitement. Meek's third studio album, Wins & Losses, had been released that day, and the event was a pop-up shop promoting it. The crowd was eager, and Meek was friendly in greeting his fans, sticking around to take photos with just about every person who approached him.
Still, for the bulk of the time there, Meek Mill appeared tense, whether because of the heat or the onslaught of people rejoicing to be so close to their favorite superstar rapper. For the two years leading up to this day, the Philadelphia native had openly struggled with the unwanted attention that fame afforded him, both for positive and negative reasons, and it wasn't hard to imagine his discomfort. He loosened up, though, when he made it out of the park's enclosure and encountered a few fans who had ridden up on dirt bikes. Meek can be seen on Instagram and in music videos riding similar bikes and ATVs with friends through the streets of Philadelphia and elsewhere. This was familiar. Although he was due to perform a show across town at Webster Hall in little more than an hour, Meek gleefully hopped on one of the fans' dirt bikes, cracked a smile, and gave it a half ride up Kent Avenue. For the first time since he'd arrived, he seemed to be at some level of peace.
"I try to keep it moving in life," Meek Mill told me earlier that day over lunch. We were at Del Frisco's steakhouse in Midtown Manhattan, and I had asked how he reconciled with pain and frustration. "If you follow me on Instagram, you see one day I might be in the studio for a month straight, next thing you know I'm on yachts, planes, riding bikes, or with my son at the park. Just living like a regular life and keeping my mind going. And recognizing my blessings that God gave me and not really focusing on the negative part. Any time I get in bad positions I think about where I could be at, where the people I come from are at right now and what they going through compared to what I'm going through."
Nonetheless, Meek has faced plenty of challenges in recent years. With the release of his second album, 2015's Dreams Worth More Than Money, he seemed poised for a mainstream breakthrough. He was dating Nicki Minaj, appeared to have shaken the legal trouble that had stalled him throughout the early years of his career, and had a star-studded album with features from the likes of Future and Drake. But a series of frustrated tweets about Drake's unwillingness to promote the album launched a back-and-forth that saw Meek's reputation stomped into the ground. A parole violation confined Meek to 90 days of house arrest last year. Then after he cleared that hurdle, he and Nicki broke up, precipitating even more messy tabloid drama, to a degree that he'd never come close to experiencing before. In 2017, Meek Mill has never been more famous—but little of it has been in the way that he envisioned as a teenager rapping on the corners of Philadelphia.
"I enjoy [fame], but the parts I don't enjoy is probably the fakeness of it and people acting like they fuck with you just for opportunity," he explained to me over crab cakes. "In the beginning, it was really hard to see who really was there for you or who really bang with you and who don't really bang with you."
When I first met Meek at the restaurant, he was sitting with a group of five friends, laughing and talking between his table and the one next to it, where another small group of associates was seated. At that point, he was wearing another weather-defying outfit: a thick red Supreme sweatshirt, jeans, and Timberlands. Although his new album had been in the world for just 12 hours, he seemed refreshed and relaxed as we moved to a third table to chat. "Once I start recording and I get 100 songs, I'm like 'Let me pick my 17 out,'" he said. His last project, the mixtape Dreamchasers 4, dropped just nine months earlier, in September, but Meek had a lot to get off his chest. "It wasn't really about a schedule or how fast or how long. I took time off last year. I was on house arrest and shit like that. This year I got a lot of making up to do."
Wins & Losses, along with the music he released in the weeks leading up to it, finds Meek entering a stage of life where he wants to reconcile with his past, embrace maturity, and get as far away from his least favorite aspects of fame as possible. One of the album's underlying themes is being able to quickly recognize the signs of fake, celebrity-driven relationships early and knowing how to react in order to come out with the least amount of damage. On the track "Heavy Heart," Meek covers losing friends due to fame and staying to himself. "Save Me," from a collection of tracks called Meekend Music 2 that was released in early July, is an apologetic retreat from the spotlight. On the hook, he convincingly cries out "Somebody save me! Save me," as he admits to letting fame change him and to almost losing himself over a woman (presumably Nicki Minaj) while hoping his son forgives him for all the time he missed.
"1942 Flows" provides a more explicit take on his former high-profile relationship. On it, he raps, "Ain't doing no interviews, I'm busy, nigga we litty / So when you see me out don't ask me about no Nicki / Fuck I look like tellin' my business on Wendy." That song, he said, was one of his best recording experiences. Thanks to a bottle of the titular tequila in the studio, he "just was saucy and I wanted to speak how I felt." Pain has never been absent from the Meek Mill story, but of late, it seems to be a bigger focus than ever.
Before being tied to both Minaj and Drake, Meek Mill was already a hood hero figure out of what felt like an unlikely fairytale. More than any other rapper of note, his maturation was the first to be constantly documented in front of a camera without the glitz and glam of a Lil' Bow Wow or Soulja Boy—teens in the 2000s who'd make their mark on the mainstream before effectively flaming out as adults. Where Soulja Boy's rise showed one side of what YouTube could do to launch a career, Meek's was of an even more DIY variant. Heated battles on the corners of North and South Philly where he would cut his teeth were uploaded, and the footage helped a then 18-year-old rise to hood fame across the internet. The loud rapping voice that would eventually get its own Twitter parody account was developed out of a necessity to be heard over the commotion of onlookers outside. In some videos, teenage Meek would rap nonstop for minutes with a hunger that could be felt through the screen.
That passion drove him to a spot as Philly's most adored rapper for the rest of the decade, selling out local venues and feeding the streets with his Flamers mixtape series. On a 2011 tour stop in Philadelphia, Rick Ross asked fans online what local artist he should work with. The overwhelming response was Meek, who Ross would sign to his Maybach Music Group imprint soon after. By 2012, Meek's Dreamchasers 2 mixtape was so sought after that it broke the DatPiff website the day it dropped. The first track on his debut studio album from later that year, "Dreams and Nightmares (Intro),"has become a modern rap classic despite—or perhaps because of—its unconventional, hookless format. And you don't have to look far for his musical influence on today's most popular street artists; Detroit rapper Tee Grizzley's breakout single "First Day Out," which has gotten praise from the likes of JAY-Z and LeBron James, is almost structurally identical to the Dreams and Nightmares intro. That storybook rise has made Meek the template for many artists after him.
But national hood adulation is a much easier brand of celebrity to deal with than the after effects of calling out an artist whose international reach is wider than any other rapper in recent history. Just two years ago, on the exact date as the Wins & Losses release, Meek called out Drake on Twitter about not promoting Dreams Worth More Than Money, alleging that the Toronto rapper hadn't written his verse on their collaboration, "R.I.C.O." And Drake, whose whole career has been pointed at people who didn't think he was hard enough to gain respect or good enough to last this long, was itching for a fight. He fired back with a fusillade of diss tracks, and his fans were only too willing to pitch in, offering up online memes and vocal support. Drake's fan base played by a different set of rules than the code Meek abided by to get where he is now, and he wasn't anticipating it.
"It took me a long time because I be thinking it be more people like me," he said, looking me in the eyes, revisiting the shock he felt then. "I don't be thinking that it's fuck boy season out here. It's really fuck boy season." Drake fans didn't care about the respect Meek got in the streets. They didn't care whether or not their favorite pop star got assistance on writing his verses. And they were validated the more Meek seemed to stumble. They even went as far as calling a Philadelphia district attorney, urging her to send Meek back to prison before the parole hearing that resulted in him receiving house arrest. At one point, Meek disabled comments from his Instagram to silence the noise.
In interviews addressing the incident on his press run for this album, Meek has admitted to his own immaturity, saying that his lack of a filter has worked in his favor at times, but most often not. Yet, in the curious way that anything viral goes online, the beef Meek had with Drake and his failed relationship with Minaj blew his profile up in a way that being street rap's biggest star never could. "I wouldn't say it was beneficial," he thought to himself at the table. His speaking voice, though similar to his rapping one, was subdued in comparison to how blaring it can be in his music. "I feel like all that stuff was a mess, for real. It was a mess. It was a distraction. It distracted people from my talent. The business is about showcasing your talent to the highest extent but at the same time, it still kept people knowing about my name. Some in a good, some in a bad way." It's a conflict he seems to still be processing, even as we spoke.
Wins & Losses is his attempt at a return to just being the hero he was before. Though it is not markedly better than Dreamchasers 4, there are more songs dedicated to liberating his listeners, if not just himself. "These Scars" with Future finds him talking about using jewelry and cars to hide the pain. "We Ball" is a chance for him and Young Thug to fondly remember friends they lost to the streets and prison. "Young Black America" is Meek's go at explaining how difficult it is to get out of the vicious cycles that spiral through poor black neighborhoods. Much of the album's social commentary is played out in an accompanying short film of the same title. In it, a man who doesn't know how to get out of the street loses his life in a gunfight while his girlfriend is rushed to the hospital to deliver their first child. His younger, straight-A-student brother watches his body lie motionless in the street. Eventually, the young brother adopts the same lifestyle, continuing the cycle.
"Little kids out there playing with guns, they may look and be like, 'Yo. I'm hurting more than him. I done hurt his mom, his sister, his brother,'" Meek explained, describing the film's target audience. "People don't really show that side of it visually." It's the kind of overarching message that Meek Mill's longtime listeners will appreciate, a reminder of the honesty that shines through in much of his best music. Perhaps the clearest disappointment for fans in Meek's recent string of bad press was his deflection of how around-the-clock attention and criticism affected him as if he were numb to the whole thing.
The act was getting old, especially considering his talent for communicating how deeply he feels everything ailing him. That gift is why people who may have never listened to another one of his tracks can connect to the urgency and passion expressed on "Dreams and Nightmares (Intro)." It's why the earnest tribute "Lil Nigga Snupe" can make you miss people close to you who aren't around anymore. It's the reason why Meek is the most trusted rap voice on over-policing in the black community this side of Boosie Bad Azz. Everything's not okay, and hearing him articulate that in more ways than before is crucial.
Putting those frustrations and fire into the music has been therapeutic for him. Actual therapy never worked for Meek. When his father was murdered in Philadelphia when he was five years old, his family had him talk to someone to process what was going on. When he was younger and on probation, he was ordered to have mandatory sessions for five months, but still didn't feel like he was getting what he needed emotionally. "I'm not into therapy," he said while leaning back in the restaurant booth, his lanky arm rested atop his head. "I sat down with good people and smart people, and we had good conversations, but I ain't really feel like we could relate in no way—where I was coming from with it." Having music as a dependable outlet is beneficial for Meek, and his solutions can also trickle down to the younger generations he's trying to steer away from the traps he's found himself in. That sentiment is relayed on songs like "1942 Flows" where he raps, "They told them to pop Molly's / I told them to be kings."
Now 30, Meek has a lot more at stake in his career than dead-end personal disputes. Dreams Worth More Than Money was recently certified platinum, an anomaly for street artists in 2017's rap landscape. With newer, more marketable forms of the genre taking centerstage for the better part of the decade, street music has been demoted back to its underground roots. The only other platinum album from a street artist this decade is Kevin Gates's 2016 record Islah, which went largely unnoticed in the broader world of pop culture. Now that Gates, always a more polarizing figure than Meek, is currently serving a 30-month sentence in prison, Meek's commercial success places him as street music's only viable hope for another mainstream push.
"I want to people to understand that me just going platinum on one of my albums, that's like a big win for a lot of artists coming from the streets because it's starting to come to a point where only trap music and mumble type, kind of pop rap is selling," Meek said, breaking the stakes down for me. "Record labels losing faith in street rappers like a YBS Skola or dope boy type rappers. So a few people out here still talking street shit and still able to reach platinum status is a big win for our culture." YBS Skola is a rising Baltimore rapper that Meek signed earlier this year to his Dream Chasers Records imprint. It's the first signing he's made since now-slain Baton Rouge teenager Lil' Snupe wowed him with a hand-delivered demo during a tour stop in 2012.
Even for those he hasn't personally signed, Meek is something of a big brother figure. Young street artists across the country understandably see his success as one of the only tangible blueprints for a fruitful career. On Instagram, you'll see Meek leaving endearing comments on the posts of young artists of his ilk, like Bronx rapper Don Q, Baton Rouge's NBA Youngboy, Chicago's G Herbo, and more. Many of them have cited him as a major influence, and it's something he finds joy in, judging by how energized he became when we hit the topic. "I like playing the role of an inspirer and a motivator. I enjoy that more than seeing stats," he told me. "Like how JAY-Z set it up and just been killing for years, he kept the labels alive with faith to be able to believe in us."
Later that night, I worked my way into Manhattan's Webster Hall as Meek practiced with a band comprised of a drummer, keyboardist, and DJ, checking sound. Outside, fans were lined up along E. 11th Street, trying to spot cars with the Pennsylvania tags that would signal either Meek or his Dream Chaser homies were there. This time, Meek wore a bedazzled blue and green jacket with scaly dragons on each side. As he rehearsed the 2011 hit "I'm A Boss," he surveyed the nearly empty venue, seemingly anxious for the show to start. Between songs, he paced the stage, pulling out a yellow tube of Carmex lip balm and applying it to pass the time, joking with the Brooklyn rapper Casanova, who danced playfully in the back of the room. Finally, everything set, Meek headed backstage.
Thirty minutes later, the venue now filled to capacity, with a few fans screaming for him to come out, Meek walked back up onstage. He ran to each side, winding his arm back to dap up fans in the first couple rows. Women screamed. Men yelled how much they fucked with him. As he gave thunderous performances of some of his most well known tracks like "I'm A Boss," "Check," and "Monster," the crowd rapped back every lyric in unison. Meek looked the happiest he had all day; he smiled into the crowd after nearly every song, making videos to post on Instagram. That mood was especially apparent as the crowd's energy crescendoed for "Dreams and Nightmares (Intro)," and the drummer's banging added extra emphasis to the song's always-anticipated beat drop.
The exception was a quick detour after Meek performed "Save Me." Echoing the lyrics about his battles with the attention and failed relationships of fame, he expanded on the song's sentiments to the crowd, saying, "I like being around people that love me." It brought to mind one of the last things he'd said to me at lunch, before we'd parted ways.
"I come from real life where nothing is all butter," he'd explained, describing the thought process of his most recent music, the challenges of inauthenticity, of fame, of projecting a sense of success all the time. "That's where people getting it wrong," he continued. "Like, they on social media and wherever they at, they pretending that everything is all good when everything is not really all good. Sometimes when you go in the house, you may have problems when you go in the house. We lost friends in these streets. We lost freedom. We lose a lot of shit out here. Nobody just goes through life and just win 100 percent nonstop. You could have $100 million but [be] losing your soul and not be happy."
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Meron Menghistab is a Brooklyn-based photographer. Follow him on Instagram.