Meek Mill: Born Howling

Meek Mill is fast, but his is the speed of a man determined to put as much distance between him and the past as possible.

Oct 31 2013, 4:00pm

“There were two guys,” he says, “shooting at each other, running around a car, shootin’ at each other through the car. And I’m in the car—on the same block where my dad and his friend was whacked, so it’s already feelin’ spooky.” It’s a memory no one wants, but one that Meek Mill has.

This morning, Meek Mill woke up in Las Vegas. He then flew to New York, where we meet, with his crew, for lunch at Phillippe’s, an upscale restaurant located in Midtown, Manhattan. After our lunch, he’ll embark on a press gauntlet. At 26 years-old, everything Meek does is fast. He exits his cab and darts into the restaurant, staying low like a soldier ducking fire. He writes four songs per day, entirely in his head.

He’s a ball of nerves in all black, fiddling with whatever he can get his massive hands on, wielding them as if he’s not quite grown into them—as we eat, he knocks his fork off his plate no less than three times. Within five minutes of us sitting down, a spread of rice, chicken, steak, fish, crab sticks, and a couple bottles of Möet is laid before us. “I’m too skinny to be on a diet,” he jokes. “I be on the road so much I might not even get a chance to eat. See how I set this interview up at an eatin' place? I’m hungry.”

Maybe it’s the ex-drug dealer in him, wary to stay in one place for too long or put his faith in the wrong person. Maybe it’s something else, though, a restlessness bred by the sort of ambition that has, for every cavernous failure and disadvantage, led him to thrive. These days, Meek has nothing to run from. He’s seen successes both commercial and critical, occupies the enviable position the de facto second-in-command slot on Rick Ross’s MMG roster, and counts the rap legends he grew up idolizing as his friends. But every iota of his blissful present is informed and tempered by memories he carries around in his head that he’ll never be able to escape, traumas welded to his psyche that worked to shape the very foundation of his character. Without suffering, he wouldn’t be him. Meek Mill might be fast, but his is the speed of a man determined to put as much distance between him and the past as possible.

The story of Meek Mill is one of tragedy and triumph, imprisonment and freedom, punishment and deliverance—coming out of Hell not only intact, but stronger than you could ever imagine. On the cover of Dreamchasers 3, his most recent mixtape, Meek is depicted transforming into a lion. As imagery, it’s obvious, perhaps even silly. But if you were Meek Mill, you’d feel like a lion, too.

Meek Mill is from Philadelphia, a city that’s seen nearly a murder a day for the past 20 years. “It’s a jungle,” he says. “You can get murdered, killed. There’s drugs, everything.” Murder has informed his life beyond the point of comprehension—when he was five, his father was gunned down, and throughout our conversation he casually makes references to slain comrades with depressing frequency. I ask what he remembers of his father. He has little to say.

As he got older, Meek began to realize the helplessness of his circumstances. “Coming from where I’m from, nothing is possible. It’s like, ‘I’m gonna sell these drugs, and I’m either getting killed, I’m gonna go to jail, or I’m gonna make it out rich,” Meek tells me. “It ain’t really too much to believe in.”

Tired of relying on his mother for money, Meek fell into dealing drugs at a young age. “It’s the first thing you grasp onto because it’s the closest thing to you,” he says. Life was tough. He and his friends rarely left the hood. “We didn’t know about no Diplo,” he jokes, emphasizing his economic and social distance from the Philly hipster stalwart. “I can’t really blame it on nobody. It’s been goin’ on for 70 years. But I was smart enough to come up out of it.”

I ask him if he fought a lot when he was younger.

“What do you call fighting ‘a lot’?” Meek asks me. “Like, 20 times a year?”

I say yeah, sure.

“Then yeah.”

Over what?

“Over nothing. Coming from a bad home, you’re angry all day and shit—you ain’t got nobody to love you in the house,” he says. “Your mom’s on drugs, your dad’s on drugs, you might not live with anybody. You got anger built up inside of you. You wanna fight.”

It is under these circumstances that Meek came to rap, cutting his teeth on the Philly rap battle scene, which could be just as deadly as the streets Meek was running in. “People was actually getting killed at rap battles. Like, it was dangerous to even rap in a battle. But for the love of the sport we were always there, no matter if you had to take your gun out. We would just come to have fun, but sometimes the battle might be on Hell’s Boulevard, and if you love hip-hop, you’re gonna go.”

He took his rap name at the age of 16, inspired by a now-dead friend. His middle name is Rahmeek, and his friend proclaimed him Meek Millions. Despite a trickle of income from dealing, the young Meek was often penniless. “Meek Millions used to be my rap name, but I was like, ‘I ain’t got no millions of dollars.’”

“I got stories of not having a dollar in my pocket and not being able to eat,” he says, urging me to take another flute of Möet. “It’s funny now. Everything is fun, if you survive.”

In his late teens, Meek was sent to jail, more or less as a side-effect of his rough lifestyle. “It’s the worst place in the world,” he says. “Imagine,” he tells me, “being locked in your bathroom. And God forbid you don’t got a big house with a big bathroom—I’m talking about a small bathroom. For a month straight, you’re in a bathroom with a bed in it, coming out one hour a day. Every night, you’re sleeping with somebody you don’t know from a can of spray paint.” Jail is a subject he claims he could go on about for “20 pages.”

If the streets damned him, rap became his deliverance. “The first time I heard my own song on the radio, I was in a cell, playing Uno with some guys. One of them had a Walkman on, and he was like, ‘Your song’s on!’ I think I was fallin’ asleep sitting on the bed. It felt good,” he says. “I was happy.”

After an 18-month stint behind bars, Meek was granted probation. He was supposed to get more time, but a judge took note of Meek’s potential success and granted him lenience. “She saw that I had a future in me since I was already poppin’ in my city. She gave me a chance, and I haven’t been back since.”

Meek’s a star now. He’s appeared on 27 charting singles, eight of which cracked the R&B or Urban Top 40. Dreamchasers 2 broke download records for DatPiff, and was awarded Mixtape of the Year by BET. His debut album Dreams and Nighmares sold 380,000 copies, comparable to going Platinum in an era when people actually bought albums. Because of his successes, he has been blessed with the opportunity to equip those close to him with the tools to escape the struggle. His first cousin Omelly—who Meek has been shouting out since his Flamers mixtape series from the mid-2000s—is featured both prominently on Dreamchasers 3 as well as Maybach Music Group’s Self Made 3. “He just started really rappin’ for real,” Meek says. “I’m puttin’ him on all the way, because he’s been supporting me for my whole career.”

However, even the best intentions can go awry. By far the most affecting song on Dreamchasers 3 is “Lil Nigga Snupe,” Meek’s tribute to Lil Snupe, his Louisiana-based protégé who was murdered in June of this year. “Jay Z actually hit me up about that song,” he says. “He was like, ‘It’s almost triumphant—you can hear the pain in your voice.’”

I bring Snupe up early in our conversation. His response is vague, perhaps as a defense mechanism. “I was doing a show at a college in Louisiana. We’re about to ride to the plane, and a kid knocks on the window with a demo. I took it, and we popped it in. I was like, ‘Man, I like your style.’ And he been getting money and he’s been here ever since.”

The hook of “Lil Nigga Snupe” includes, “They killed my lil nigga Snupe / And all he wanted was a coupe / So what’s a nigga supposed to do? / Tell ‘em put the guns down? / Or tell these little niggas, ‘Shoot!’?”

I prod. “Isn’t Lil Snupe dead?”

Meek shifts in his seat, evaluating, deciding whether or not he trusts me. “Yeah. He got killed—murdered—in Louisiana. I always used to tell him that bein’ in the hood when you’re gaining success doesn’t really get you anything. He just started being well known in his neighborhood, and I think he loved the way people treated him. But nothing good can come out of that. And he lost his life.” He continues, “In my hood, people die all the time, but you don’t really see a kid with that much talent die. I try not to think about it, tell myself as long as I was trying to do something positive for him and help him better himself… I try not to dwell on it too much. He was the most talented young kid I’ve ever seen get killed.”

As conversations with popular rappers in 2013 tend to go, talk turns to Kendrick Lamar. Kendrick’s good kid, m.A.A.d city was released a week before Meek’s Dreams and Nightmares. Both records were the artists’ proper debut. Kendrick’s album went platinum; meanwhile, Meek struggled to go gold. Because of the proximity of their releases, the two albums were juxtaposed, perhaps unfairly, as divergent models for album-crafting in hip-hop. Meek was dismissed by many as an errant shit-talker, a post-Lox oddity in a hip-hop landscape that seemed to privilege the sort of thoughtful, novelistic vision that Kendrick peddled on m.A.A.d city.

Meek was implicated—dissed feels like the incorrect word here—in Kendrick’s “Control” verse, which has, for better or worse, reached a certain level of infamy. I note to Meek that he’s the sole rapper named in Kendrick’s verse who took it upon himself to respond. “That’s how I go,” he says. “It’s like someone’s swinging a punch at you—your mother would tell you to swing back. Don’t start a fight, but swing back.”

For what he lacks in capital-A Artistry, Meek makes up for in intrinsic emotional depth. Though it isn’t a word-for-word retelling of Snupe’s death, “Lil Nigga Snupe” feels like a more apt tribute to a fallen soldier than any amount of nuance and detail could communicate. As special a talent as Snupe was, his death was a symptom of poverty. It’s a trap, one you can’t rap that away. There’s not much else to do besides scream.

This is why Meek Mill matters. It’s all in his voice, delivering those staccato bars with all-caps urgency, like he was born howling. “I come from a battlin' scene,” he tells me. “You might be in front of a thousand people in the street. You can't just like come out cool, because nobody will pay you no mind. I would bring energy so I could take the attention, demand it.” And maybe when you’ve been through so much to get that attention, there’s nothing more to say.

“I be thinkin' 'bout that sometimes,” Meek says, “like, should I go on the cut for a while and just don't say nothin' at all? I just think when I speak for myself, it comes out the right way.”

Drew Millard is the Features Editor at Noisey. He's on Twitter - @drewmillard