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Meek Mill’s Wins and Losses | via facebook.com/MeekMill

Nearly two years ago, to the day, Canadian pop-rap Superstar (can you imagine reading that sentence 15 or 20 years ago? LOL) Drake released “Back to Back,” a vicious and oddly anthemic diss track aimed at Philly Rap star Meek Mill. Seven days earlier, Meek had taken to social media to launch a seemingly unprovoked attack against Drake, questioning the pop star’s authenticity: “Stop comparing me to Drake too….he don’t even write his own raps! That’s why he ain’t Tweet my album because we found out!” Whatever latent feelings of hostility may have slept right below the surface of the two stars (and collaborators) relationship had now erupted into open warfare and VERY public rap beef.

Although, he launched the first bomb (an act which seems to have been provoked when Meek learned that Drake had employed a ghostwriter to pen his guest verse on Meek’s song “R.I.C.O.”), Meek was clearly not ready for an all-out battle. On the day that “Back to Back” dropped, Meek was about 9 weeks deep into the North American leg of his then-romantic partner Nicki Minaj’s Pink Print tour. Far removed from the days of Nas and Jay-Z battling it out with diss records released months apart from one another, rap battles today, are settled on the internet and victory usually goes to the combatant who can respond swiftly and control the narrative. Once Drake started releasing songs dissing him, Meek should have quickly responded with an equally vicious attack himself, but he did not. As the days went on and the chatter grew louder, we all witnessed the stock of one of mainstream rap’s brightest stars plummet lower than ENRON. By seriously underestimating his opponent and putting himself at a strategic disadvantage by initiating a war while away on tour, it became clear that Meek was in serious trouble. By the time “Back to Back” had finished reverberating out into riding on a wave of instant quotables and countless fan-generated internet memes, it seemed as though Meek Mill’s rap career was over, dead in the water. His name had become synonymous with failure and he became the closest thing to a laughingstock in mainstream hip-hop since rapping popsters like MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice were exorcised from the culture in the early 90s.

Since his rise up out of Philly’s notoriously fertile and competitive underground battle rap scene in the 2000s, Meek’s musical output has amounted to not-so subtle variations on a few consistent themes. In the intro to his major label debut Dreams & Nightmares, Meek lays out his mission statement with a degree of hunger and vitality that he has struggled to match since becoming a star.

“I used to pray for times like this, to rhyme like this.
So, I had to grind like that to shine like this.
In a matter of time I spent on some locked up shit.
In the back of the paddy wagon, cuffs locked on wrists.
Seen my dreams unfold, nightmares come true.
It was time to marry the game, and I said: ‘Yeah, I do…’”

The message is clear to anyone who’d listen: like many young black men in America, Meek sees hip-hop as a tool to escape the cycle of systemic violence, poverty and incarceration that he and many people around him have been forced into. For Meek, a very clear binary lives in his mind and work: The “dream” of success and wealth vs. the “nightmare” of the life he was born into as a poor black kid in North Philly. Unlike some of the more savvy, business-minded in rap, the driving force behind Meek’s career has not been to elevate himself to corporate “mogul” status: his fight is a fight for survival. On his latest full-length, Wins and Losses — his first since that devastating public loss to Drake — Meek finds himself fighting against public opinion in an attempt to save the dream and the career that saved his life.

The opening title track “Wins & Losses” lays a sampled motivational speech over a bed of swirling synths and epic tubular bells, making it clear that Meek still has a penchant for sonic grandiosity. By the time the booming 808 drums kick in, Meek glides in confidently, taking aim at haters, doubters and naysayers. He has (almost) always spit with a degree elevated intensity, but here he’s upping the ante, flexing, flaunting his successes, acknowledging his defeats and delivering lines through a cracking voice. “Mama told me if you fall, never lay down…” with energy and purpose he follows the verse out to its logical conclusion: “These niggas told me I wouldn’t make it, I told ya’ll!!!” proclaiming an early victory, even though he still has 60 minutes of music left to prove it.

Pristine and emotionally wrought songs like “Heavy Heart” find Meek diving head first into navel-gazing introspection while “Young Black America” (featuring The-Dream), is a sober, bluesy meditation on the racism, police brutality and streets. Meek continues to play on the success vs. failure binary with Meek driving home a simple message of survival through perseverance. Throughout his career, Meek has rightfully earned a reputation as an artist who takes himself a little too seriously. He combats this and adds to the diversity of the album by serving up a few moments of levity by way of a handful standout club tracks. “Fuck That Check Up” finds Philly trap iconoclast Lil’ Uzi Vert joining in for a spotlight-stealing verse, while “Ball Player” features Migos frontman Quavo delivering a brilliant melodic hook that uses a Blues Clues reference as a part of an extended metaphor for drug trafficking.

Even the pop-flavored radio cuts like “What You Need” (featuring Chris Brown & Ty Dolla Sign) seem to feel more natural than Meek’s previous attempts in this style. Although musically and thematically, there is not much that to be found on Wins and Losses that deviates from Meek’s other projects, this album represents a significant refinement of his brand of street-hardened, aspirational rap. Delivering songs that are at times both nuanced and overblown, introspective and celebratory, Meek clearly wrote this album with the intention of crafting a new narrative. Arguably his strongest body of work to date, Wins and Losses will go a long way toward restoring some of the respect he’s lost over the past two years.

There are moments throughout the when he sounds inspired rather than defeated: “They put my back to the wall. I’ve seen all this shit happen before. I can’t forget that I came from the bottom and if I look back I might happen to fall…”. Listening to Meek equate his days in the streets with his struggle to maintain and advance his career, the sense of purpose radiating from some of these songs is palpable. Spitting these verses with the same intensity and focus that he gave us in his early days making street mixtapes it becomes painfully clear that Meek is still fighting for his life, but in a different way.

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