Maybach Music Group/Atlantic Recording Corporation

You might forgive an artist who—upon reaching his fourth album—begins to lose some hunger on the mic or starts scrapping the bottom of the barrel for original song topics. Such is not even remotely the case, however, for Meek Mill and Championships, the Philly MC’s urgent, wise and poignant fourth LP, which arrives seven months after his release from prison.

The taste of inequality still fresh on his tongue after spending five months behind bars for a parole violation of a decade-old drug and gun charge, a resilient Meek takes focused shots at a system designed to dehumanize, not rehabilitate.

“Locked me in a call for all them nights and I won’t snap, uh/Two-fifty a show and they still think I’m sellin’ crack, uh,” he fires on the superb “What’s Free?” The collaboration sees Meek linking with A-listers Rick Ross and Jay-Z over Notorious B.I.G.’s “What’s Beef” loop. Jay’s standout closing verse has already made headlines for his addressing of Kanye West’s red MAGA hat (which, unfortunately, he had to explain on Twitter for those listening too slowly), but it’s important to remember that Hova used the #FreeMeek movement as an example to rail against the systemic injustice of the U.S. criminal justice system in an op-ed for the New York Times.

“They gave us pork and pig intestines/Shit you discarded that we ingested, we made the project a wave/You came back, reinvested and gentrified it/Took niggas’ sense of pride, now how’s that free?” Jay schools.

It’s a theme established early, and Meek’s real-life trials (literal and metaphorical) give his raw words and ferocious delivery extra gravitas, be it on the rabid “Intro,” which borrows Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight,” or the scathing “Trauma,” which invokes the police murder of Stephen Clark. “They shot that boy 20 times when they could’ve told him just freeze/Could’ve put him in a cop car, but they let him just bleed/‘The ambulance, they coming, baby, just breathe’/That’s what the old lady said when she screamed,” Meek raps.

And later: “How many times you send me to jail to know that I won’t fail?/Invisible shackles on the king, ’cause, shit, I’m on bail.”

The nods to the ghosts of rap’s past are frequent. “Trauma,” produced by Don Connon, flips Mobb Deep’s haunting “Get Away,” and “Respect the Game” employs the same jazzy Lonnie Liston Smith sample that Jay made famous on “Dead Presidents.” Meanwhile, "Cold Hearted II" borrows the hook from DMX's 1998 track "We Don't Give a Fuck."

While the 31-year-old Meek has arguably never sounded sharper and Championships’ high points are very high—oh, look, a break-up-to-make-up event record with Drake—there's also a sense that he needs to touch all the bases. At nearly 70 minutes and 19 tracks, some streamlining would give the project some needed immediacy. Instead, softer relationship tracks like “Almost Slipped” and “24/7” clutter the middle of the playlist. And “Wit the Shits (W.T.S),” featuring the tongue-twisting Melii, seems so trite by comparison.

Worlds better is the autobiographical “Oodles O’ Noodles Babies,” in which Meek delivers heartbreaking flashbacks of his ramen-eating childhood over a soulful instrumental. “I used to act up when I went to school/Thought it was cool, but I really was hurt/Wanted my family to come to my games/My mama couldn't make it 'cause she was at work.”

Powerful stuff that can only bleed from the pen of a grown-up who is surviving his own pain. —Luke Fox

See Photos of Meek Mill's Different Looks Over the Years