Sold-out concerts, like Thursday’s show at the Anthem, were merely fond memories to Meek Mill a year ago. Back then, the Philadelphia rapper was an inmate at a Pennsylvania state prison, serving a controversial two- to four-year sentence for violating the conditions of his probation.
In absentia from the outside world, Meek became the celebrity avatar for prison reform, proof that fame is no protection from a system that disproportionately affects people of color — the majority of whom lack the status that elevated his circumstances. Since his release last April, which involved a helicopter and a Philadelphia 76ers playoff game, Meek has advocated for dramatic changes to the criminal justice system.
His music, laden with intense urgency since his mix-tape days, has become even more resolute in communicating the struggles of the marginalized. And it’s those struggles that make Meek’s victories all the more satisfying.
While “Championships,” Meek’s first album since his release, features his brand of activism and grim reality, it’s balanced by his good-life exhortations. That combination of celebration and strife is why kindred spirits want Meek to succeed — and why they flocked to the Wharf to see him onstage.
Be it with a harrowing confessional or a wealth screed, Meek’s fervent energy radiates from every song and performance. That quality makes for powerful opening statements; tracks such as “Intro,” with its ominous Phil Collins sample, and “Trauma” sent Meek’s passion coursing through the building. On the latter, he notes that he went from “selling out arenas” to feeling like he’s “on sale,” a nod to slavery’s oft-referenced link to the criminal justice system.
The same fire Meek breathes into his music has also resulted in public feuds with his peers. His most high-profile conflict involved Drake — all but burying his since-resolved tiff with Wale, a Maybach Music Group comrade and D.C. native. Meek’s mention of his “special connection” to the District was the cue for Wale’s unsurprising yet spirited cameo. A “DC” logo — a reference to Meek’s Dreamchasers brand and mix-tape series — had been emblazoned on a screen, but the meaning shifted as Wale performed segments of “Clappers,” “No Hands” and his latest, “Poledancer,” before slinking offstage.
The journey through Meek’s earlier catalogue offered a pleasant reminder of how he has evolved. While “Respect the Game,” “On Me” and “Going Bad” haven’t reached the same heights as essentials such as “Ima Boss,” “Levels” and “Believe It,” they’re evidence of Meek’s unbreakable spirit.
It’s only fitting that his defining record captures that essence in goose-bump-inducing fashion. On “Dreams and Nightmares,” the ultimate success-as-revenge tale and an instant classic, he details the adversity he’s faced since birth, then thumbs his nose at it all: “Was on my grind and now I got what I deserve.” He performed it against the backdrop of footage from rallies organized after his 2017 incarceration — a reminder that Meek, who remains on probation, still isn’t 100 percent free.
As expected, that song was the show’s apex. Meek left people hungry for more. After all, they didn’t just come to see him perform — they came to see him win.