Meek Mill’s raps usually come with a deadly stake. It doesn’t matter if he has legal stalemates with the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, digital stalemates with other rappers, or just targets faceless haters; when he has his back against the wall, he is able to make any setback feel like an eruption of the Marvel Cinematic Universe in a third act. This me-against-the-world fervor turns songs like ‘Dreams and Nightmares’, the intro to his 2012 major label debut of the same name, into timeless anthems and his 2018 album. championships— released over seven months after a long battle with the Pennsylvania Supreme Court — in a celebratory middle finger. Meek has had a ten-year roller coaster ride and has overcome (or made up for) most of his enemies. His fifth album, Expensive pain, is an extended victory lap that can be exciting and thoughtful in some places, but mostly content to spin its wheels aggressively.
With no tangible enemy to muster the troops against, the idea of ”expensive pain” creeps along the edges of the album. Bringing in hundreds of thousands of dollars per show, Meek is freed from the bondage of parole, but money and fame can also isolate people from the world. Sometimes, like on “Intro (Hate on Me)” – the latest in his series of explosive album openers – he rushes through the commotion and bends over backwards (“I put baguettes on all my dawgs; they fall, they make a noise “). Other times, as in both the title track and “Tweaking,” he dwells on arguing with friends over money and is told to seek therapy after admitting to cuddling his gun in bed. For better and worse, it’s a long way from the cold Philadelphia street corners where he cut his teeth, and the album’s best moments amplify the pros and cons that come with acquiring wealth while grieving loved ones.
Searching for the soul Expensive pain is one of the most powerful of Meek’s career. He is nervous because his friends are leaving the prison and jumping back into the street (“Expensive Pain”); he thinks about being a “gangsta since 5 years, since my father died” (“Cold Hearted III”). His signature pumped-up anthems, on the other hand, are more of a mixed bag. There he usually runs in place, recycling hackneyed stories about haters lurking in the shadows and women lurking in his bed and his wallet. He has already made dozens of songs, such as ‘Sharing Locations’ and ‘Me (FWM)’. Halfway through the album ‘Hot’ is especially notable for the speed of the beat from Nick Papz and a deft guest verse from Memphis rapper Moneybagg Yo, which distracts attention from Meek’s unsexy sex bars. The fun and energy are there, but there’s little that sets these Meek Mill songs apart from those already clogged workout playlists.
He sings more often Expensive pain, too, but his Auto-Tuned vocals are slurred, the exact opposite of his established personality. “On My Soul” aims for shiny vocal runs, but scans like Roddy Ricch cosplay. He sounds so much like Young Thug on “We Slide” that it’s really surprising when Thug himself shows up for a duet in the second half. Combined with one of the most unique voices in rap, Meek sounds like a deepfake. He was clearly inspired to keep pushing his voice after isolated vocal moments on his 2017 album Gains and Losses and championships, but it’s largely an unwelcome extension, diverting attention from the more melancholic corners of Meek’s brain.
As a rapper who now has five studio albums and nearly a dozen mixtapes in his career, Meek can’t be faulted for wanting to change things up. Many of the experiments on Expensive pain no matter, and a handful of the album’s more traditional tracks bleed together, but the glitz, glamor and paranoia typical of his music generally hold up. Expensive pain is Meek’s first album not embroiled in or directly inspired by controversy since 2015 Dreams worth more than money, a place to get back on your feet without playing defense. His introspection and thumps are just enough to keep the stakes fairly high.
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