PHILADELPHIA — It’s been more than three years since the Free Meek Mill movement came to fruition and the Philadelphia rapper was released from the state prison in Chester, where he had been serving a two- to four-year sentence for a probation violation stemming from a 2007 gun charge.
But never fear: The freedom that Mill fully attained in 2019 — when his cause celebre case was finally put to rest after he pleaded guilty to a firearms possession offense and all other charges were dropped — has not blunted the intensity of his music or the capacity for soul searching that has forged a deep bond with his audience.
Mill’s new album, “Expensive Pain” (Maybach Music Group/Atlantic), is his fifth. It’s the first by the 34-year-old rapper and criminal justice activist since “Championships,” the 2018 release that came out six months after the whirlwind day when he caught a helicopter ride from Chester to the Wells Fargo Center in South Philly in time to ring the bell at a Philadelphia 76ers playoff game.
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“I don’t really remember that day,” Mill said, speaking on the phone last week from New York. “Everything was moving so fast, it was like a big blur to me. I don’t even remember being at the Sixers game or how it felt emotionally. I have to watch it on YouTube to remember the feeling.”
“Expensive Pain,” whose cover features a painting by artist Nina Chanel Abney, is in many ways a celebration of freedom. It boasts a bountiful list of features that cements Mill’s status as a mature artist poised at a point in his career between elder mentors like Jay-Z and Rick Ross and such younger rappers as Lil Uzi Vert, Moneybagg Yo, Lil Baby and Lil Durk, as well as singers Kehlani and Brent Faiyez.
But ask the kinetic rapper which songs on the album mean the most to him, and he responds with a list that includes “On My Soul,” “Halo,” “Cold Hearted III” and the title track — all of which tend toward introspection and concern the mental health consequences of life in Philadelphia neighborhoods plagued by gun violence.
“It’s all PTSD,” said Mill, who in August received the Nelson Mandela Changemaker Award from global business group PTTOW! (Plan To Take On The World) for his work with Reform Alliance, the parole and probation organization he co-founded in 2019 with Sixers co-owner Michael Rubin. He is also a co-owner, with Rubin, of Indianapolis-based Lids, the largest hat retailer in North America.
“When we were younger, we were getting beat up by cops, and growing up in poverty. We didn’t have fathers in the house,” said Mill. “Probably the doctors in Philadelphia have PTSD, and the detectives and the people who live in the communities and probably some of the news reporters have PTSD, from living around all that murder that’s happening in the city.”
Mill grew up in South and North Philadelphia. His father was killed during a robbery in South Philly when he was 5. “I happened to live in those areas for 20 years of my life,” he said. “You can’t just remove it. Some of my friends and family was killed. My father was killed.”
Mill has used his fame to call attention to the cases of incarcerated people such as Eric Riddick, the Philadelphia man he met at the Chester State Correctional Institution who had served 29 years of a life sentence for murder. He was freed in May after the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office found he didn’t get a fair trial.
“It’s not just about Eric Riddick, it’s about a lot of people in that system who were like me,” Mill said. “I wasn’t supposed to be there.” Riddick “was one of those guys who gave me a lot of information and made sure I didn’t get in trouble. He was somebody I met playing chess.”
The “Expensive Pain” album cover painting depicts naked women, a yacht and a dirt bike, the latter representing one of Mill’s favorite pastimes.
The album cover painting also shows a chess board.
The game, Mills says, has taught him “proactive thinking.”
“I learned to play chess from the older guys in prison,” he says. “Growing up in the hood, you don’t get a chance to think about your Step Two. This was about me learning to think about Step Two and Step Three. If you do this, this can happen. I started using those things in my life.”
“Expensive Pain” explores the limits of material success. But it also aims to celebrate achievement.
“The album is me showcasing my talent, showcasing my flows,” said Mill. “But it’s also about giving people motivation. When you come from poverty, it’s motivating to see people win.”
On Oct. 23, the rapper will headline a Meek Mill & Friends show at Madison Square Garden in New York. A tour is expected to follow but has yet to be announced.
Mill, who was born Robert Rihmeek Williams, spent the early days of the pandemic quarantining in Atlanta with his family.
His son Czar with fashion designer Milan Harris (from whom he has since split) was born in May 2020, on his 33rd birthday. His son Rihmeek (also known as Papi) from ex-girlfriend Fahimah Raheem, is 10. On “Expensive Pain,” he raps: “I got two sons that’s kings and they spoiled lil’ bros.”
“Expensive Pain” has its share of such lighthearted moments, but being a Meek Mill album, it’s a serious affair. “Angels” mourns Lil Snupe, Mill’s protege Addaren Ross who was murdered in Louisiana in 2013. “He was like one of my little babies, the first person I brought my energy to,” Mill says. “He was like a little brother to me.”
Facing up to trauma, Mill raps, “Boy you need some therapy” on the title track. And then responds to himself: “And I can’t lie, I probably do.”
Has he taken his own advice? Not yet.
“My therapy was making this album, expressing myself by making music that people can relate to,” he said.
Looking back at his 12-year saga within the criminal justice system, Mill said he has let go of his anger.
“I look at it that it was meant to be,” he said. “I understand now that it’s not normal. And I just promise myself that I would never be put in that situation again. There’s nothing that I’m running from. I’ve got a whole life now. I don’t have time for that.”