Chain Heavy: Meek Mill and the Cost of Success

Chain Heavy: Meek Mill and the Cost of SuccessPhotography by Liz Barclay

Meek earned these rewards through a steady grassroots grind; references to them are littered throughout his catalog. His rap style is at once an exposed nerve—with vocals that disturb and unsettle—and the epitome of control, displaying technically-flawless, fluid performance.

One rapper I spoke with observed that every time he hears Meek, it makes him want to rap, right then, much as televised NBA games inspire kids across the country to lace up their Nikes. Meek's delivery has a muscular athleticism (check his fluent double-time on the title track), each line delivered with an almost acrobatic grace. Where Kendrick Lamar, with his critical eye and self-conscious introspection, is a writer's writer, Meek is a rapper's rapper. The viscera of his performance is key to understanding how his music operates.

 

Where Kendrick Lamar, with his critical eye and self-conscious introspection, is a writer's writer, Meek is a rapper's rapper. The viscera of his performance is key to understanding how his music operates.

 

His style was honed in Philadelphia’s crucible of hip-hop culture: the street corner battle rap scene. One of the things that makes Meek so unique is that he is at once of-a-place and universal. Philadelphia informs his music deeply, but he appeals to many beyond its borders.

“In Philly, it's all about lyrics,” says Meek. “They don't care about hooks, beats—none of that. Mostly it's about lyrical ability and ways you can do things.” But for Meek, the importance of lyrics is in their resonance for his followers. Most of the stories Meek weaves share the same basic street context. They draw their power not from breadth, but by embodying a singular contradiction, at once vulnerable in content (“Man, my life’s so real/Last week went to sleep and woke up with the chills”) and aggressively guarded, even threatening, in style.

Meek’s ability to connect with his audience relies heavily upon his own story, one that has been mostly hinted at and sketched, rather than drawn out in detail. His authenticity depends as much on what’s left unspoken as what is said. It’s this feeling that grants him authority; how else could he get away with a song like “Maybach Curtains”? The schmaltzy production and overwrought John Legend hook suddenly lock into focus thanks to Meek's singular gravitas.

Inside a Manhattan recording studio filled with the New York hip-hop elite, Meek’s jewelry is flashy but decorative. And as beautiful as the chains are up close, they have little significance on the 39th floor of a midtown Manhattan building. It’s difficult to understand if you haven’t witnessed it in person, but the jewelry’s true significance is evident only in certain places.

 

'In Philly, it's all about lyrics,' says Meek. 'They don't care about hooks, beats—none of that. Mostly it's about lyrical ability and ways you can do things.'

 

To comprehend the power of these totems, you have to see an entire room’s energy shift, and feel the air sucked out by the sudden presence of a $65,000 watch or a pair of rose gold Cuban link chains. What does it mean to possess these items in a place where so many others have nothing, and no one can be trusted? It’s at moments like this, when the dreams and the nightmares intersect, that these artifacts have any meaning.

The tense, ominous silence of such rooms is a sound unknown to most, as are the feelings that drive Meek’s new record. Meek Mill’s purpose is his piercing delivery, his ability to cut through—charged by the realism he puts behind every word and the control he exerts over revelations of his personal history. His jewelry bears witness to the entirety of his journey, even though it receives little attention on Dreams & Nightmares. Apart from the album’s cover art—which juxtaposes handcuffs and a shiny Rolex—the trappings of success are pure subtext. On tracks like “Polos and Shell Tops,” Meek raps about the days when he would risk everything for extremely modest rewards.

“I ain't lose that connection yet,” says Meek, despite all that his MMG affiliation has brought. “I'm still hurt in my heart, when I go home I still go outside and be okay outside. I can still go around my way, so it ain't easy to lose.”

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