Meek Mill, “You Wouldn’t Understand” (Originally Published October/November 2012)

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Meek Mill says he lost his one and only rap battle when he was 12 years old. It took place on his home turf, the corner of 23rd and Brooks in Philadelphia, but his opponent—“His name was Done Did It or some shit like that,” Meek says today—was three years his senior. He had a broader vocabulary and was more seasoned in the art of battle rapping. Meek, born Robert Rahmeek Williams, didn’t take defeat gracefully. He cried afterward. He wanted to fight. “I’m going to be nice one day, watch,” he said through his tears. “All of y’all are going to be playing my shit.”

Even at such a young age, there was never a Plan B for Meek. He wanted fame and fortune. Options were limited. “I always wanted to be something,” he says. “I didn’t want to be the regular person in the street that was on the corner all day or the next person that got shot or killed or the person who went to jail. I wanted to be something big. I never wanted to be basic, ever. ‘Basic,’ in my hood, means being broke or being killed or going to jail or never having been. That’s the basic things that happen in the street. I never wanted to be basic. I loved money. I wanted to make a lot of money. I had to find something that I loved to make money.”

He didn’t want to end up like his father, Robert Parker, who was murdered in South Philly when Meek was just a young child. “Meek’s dad was my oldest brother,” says Meek’s uncle, the radio DJ Parnell “Grandmaster Nell” Parker. “He was different from us growing up. We were DJs trying to get in the industry. I don’t want to get too personal about his dad. His dad was like the black sheep of the family. He was like the opposite of us, certain things that he chose to do. He was around for Meek though, a hundred percent.”

Meek is less circuitous: “He was a street nigga gooning in the streets and doing shit he wasn’t supposed to and things happen.” With Nell in the family, hip-hop surrounded Meek since childhood, and like most aspiring rappers, he started out memorizing popular rap songs, studying flows and rhyme patterns. The Notorious B.I.G’s “Mo Money, Mo Problems” was an early favorite. He began writing his own raps and quickly graduated into Philadelphia’s fervent street battle scene, where he developed an exigent intensity and his trademark yelping cadence. From there, he took advantage of evolving technology (street DVDs, cheap-to-press CD mixtapes) and social media (MySpace, YouTube and Twitter) to release and promote his music. “Meek had that fiery energy that separated him from the pack,” says Philly-to-ATL transplant DJ Drama, “and he was getting a lot of buzz from those Flamers mixtapes he was doing himself.”

His work showcased an ear for melody and a knack for crafting songs, skills that Philly MCs have famously struggled with. After an early mixtape cut, “In My Bag,” jumped into radio rotation, T.I. showed interest in signing Meek to Grand Hustle—but all momentum halted when Meek was arrested on gun charges in 2008.

“My dad got killed in South Philly,” Meeks says. “My mind frame was, I’m not getting killed down there. I wasn’t old enough to have a gun license. I never knew how to get a gun license. People were being killed in that area every day, so I was being strapped every day. I didn’t want to hurt nobody or anything like that; it was just to protect myself. Bad things go on in that area. In Philly, you got monsters running around all day.”

Things have changed and Meek says he’s learned from mistakes. “I don’t carry guns no more,” Meek says. “I have people around me that have gun licenses. I make sure all my homies get gun licenses.”

After spending eight months at Philadelphia’s State Road Detention Center, Meek was desperate to escape the inexhaustible cycle of violence and incarceration. He was on probation. Rap was his ticket out. “I had to go,” he says today. “I had to make a move.” But the Grand Hustle deal fell through after T.I. was sent to prison for his own gun charges. Meek got creative. He reached out to Rick Ross via Twitter, asking the burly Miami star to appear on a remix of his street smash “Rosé Red.” It worked. Ross visited Meek in Philadelphia, recorded with him and, in early 2011, signed him to his Maybach Music Group imprint. The Teflon Don shepherded Meek’s introduction to the national scene, giving him pole position on two singles from his label showcase, Self Made, Vol. 1—“Tupac Back” and “I’ma Boss” became two of the biggest street bangers of the summer.

“My only criticism of Meek was that he was a spitter and had to find a flow and a lane where he could make different kinds of songs,” says DJ Drama. “I think Ross helped him with that in a sense. It made sense for them to make records together.”

His thrilling performances on “I’ma Boss” and “Tupac Back” turned Meek into a star—one who offers a refreshing alternative to the current norm. In an era when rap music is starting to resemble a reality show confessional booth, Meek is a throwback. He doesn’t sing. He is not “emo.” He is blunt and aggressive. He sounds dangerous. And like early DMX or 50 Cent, he can channel that danger, that urgency into the music.

Recent smashes such as “Amen,” “Burn” and Rick Ross’ “So Sophisticated” make Dreams And Nightmares the most anticipated debut album of the year. It should sound familiar once it’s released; Meek doesn’t anticipate changing his recipe for success. He’s still working with favorite collaborators like the producer Jahlil Beats and writing songs similar to his biggest hits. “I like to keep making the same music that people have liked,” he says. “Eventually it’s going to change as I get older. I write with my heart and mind. It’s going to change as it gets older.”