Meek Mill reflects on prison, love, and success

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Philly-born Meek Mill has a concert stop here with girlfriend Nicki Minaj next month and will be a headliner at Made in America in September. (Andrew Renneisen/For the Inquirer)

NEW YORK - It's a good day to be Meek Mill.

The fiercely combative North Philadelphia rapper born Robert Rahmeek Williams, who got out of jail in December after serving five months for a parole violation stemming from a 2008 drug charge, finally released his second album, Dreams Worth More Than Money, on June 29, three years after his debut.

And on this day in early July, as he kicks back in his gold snakeskin Pumas - he's now a brand ambassador for the shoe company that was always his favorite growing up - in a 17th-floor lounge of Atlantic Records, he's learned that Dreams will enter the Billboard chart as his first No. 1 album.

"It gives you confidence, knowing all the hard work you put in has paid off," says the 28-year-old rapper.

Three days earlier, he and rap paramour Nicki Minaj made their first public appearance together, duetting on Dream's "All Eyes on You" on the BET Awards. Before he's done talking, Minaj turns up in the interview room wearing a giant (nonengagement) diamond ring and eye-popping gold-and-diamond watch gifted by her boyfriend. He beams proudly in her presence.

(They're not engaged, though gossips wish they were. "Yeah, they trying to make us be engaged. I don't really engage in what they're talking about, though.")

And the entrepreneurial hip-hop star is also riding high on the app charts with Bike Life. It's a free mobile game that channels his enthusiasm for motorbikes and ATVs, a nonviolent outlet the rapper says "brings all the black kids from all over the city together. This is all we got." The game shows a virtual #Omeeka - it's their celebrity-couple name, Minaj's real name is Onika Maraj - riding double around the streets of Philadelphia.

Starting Friday, Mill will also double up with Minaj as the opener on her Pinkprint tour that comes to Camden's Susquehanna Bank Center on Aug. 6. He'll be back in his hometown at Made in America on Labor Day weekend.

Dreams Worth More Than Money (Maybach/Atlantic ***) was scheduled for release last September, but was delayed when Judge Genece E. Brinkley found Mill violated probation. He didn't get permission to book concerts outside of Philadelphia and failed to provide his probation officer with a working cell number.

Had Dreams been released then, it would have been a very different album. And to hear its creator tell it, it would have been made by a different man.

Mill is known for the aggressive, take-no-prisoners intensity with which he built a loyal following through mixtapes released under the Dreamchasers brand, advertised with the gold-and-diamond medallion around his neck.

The energy that led Miami hip-hop don Rick Ross to sign him to the Maybach Music Group "comes from battle rapping," says the surprisingly soft-spoken emcee.

Growing up, he would watch his uncle Grandmaster Nell practice turntable skills on the third floor of Mill's grandmother's North Philly rowhouse. He started rapping at 12.

"There might be hundreds of people on the block. You got to be loud. And you got to be aggressive toward the people you battling, to take their confidence."

Mill still comes hard on Dreams. "We strong in Philly, we fighters," he says. "We represent like the Rocky steps, the Rocky movie. That's what I represent. Coming from the bottom and fighting all the way up to the top."

But Dreams, including guest appearances from Drake, the Weeknd, and Minaj (on two less-than-incendiary cuts), shows a contemplative side. After his release, Mill junked an all-but-completed version, writing and recording nine new songs.

"I wanted to say something more serious," he says. "I'm not just saying ignorant s- all the time. There's going to be some ignorant s- on there." He smiles. "But there's also going to be music that touches people."

"Lord Knows," the album's opening track, samples Mozart's "Lacrimosa" from the Requiem Mass in D Minor. Mill raps: "Shout-out to the judge that denied me my bail, it made me smarter, and it made me go harder."

"She helped get me focused," Mill says of Brinkley. "I started being on my grind more. . . . Because I just came from a situation that motivated me to not put myself back in that position."

When he went to jail - Mill did his time at the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility on State Road - "I was mad at myself. At the time, I was mad at everybody. Because I couldn't really figure out what I did. But as I sat there thinking about it for days and days, I kind of see where she saw me at. And now I'm happy I went through that. If I had to do it over, I wouldn't take it back if I could."

Dr. Damone Jones, pastor of West Philadelphia's Bible Way Baptist Church, counseled Mill at the prison, at the urging of his teenage son and daughter. Jones found him to be "a very bright, very positive individual."

He praises Mill's charitable efforts, such as distributing winter coats to schoolchildren. "He's one of these rags-to-riches entertainers. This experience is going to stay with him for the rest of his life."

Huntingdon Valley etiquette teacher Gail Madison gave Mill private lessons in 2013, ordered by a judge who did not like the rapper's courtroom demeanor. "He's a fine young man in his heart of hearts," says Madison.

His tough-guy image "is totally inaccurate," she says. "Once you meet him, he's very charismatic, very smart." Of Minaj, Madison said: "She must be a good person if she's with Robert." The self-described "etiquette lady" does "wish that the words weren't so misogynist" and was disappointed to learn Mill was two hours late for this interview.

Dreams' album cover shows a wad of $100 bills and the funeral card for Mill's father, who was murdered when the rapper was 5.

"I just wanted to show that I was caught up in poverty, in a single-parent home," says Mill. "A crazy environment. And I was able to flip that and make something out of it. Kids where I'm from don't have two parents. They come up with different conditions than a regular kid."

He grew up around North Philly. "I used to live at 32d and Cecil B. Moore," he recalls. "I got straight A's. And then I moved to 18th and Berks and that was just a whole different environment. It was nothing like it is now. . . . That's what really taught me that environment is key. With children, it really matters what environment you live in."

When Mill was 16, he says, "it got to the point where my mom . . . couldn't afford the things I wanted. So I started to take to the streets."

He put his experiences into his rhymes. "It's easier to get somebody to give you drugs to sell than get a job," he says. "Millions of people have been put in this position. Do I have to go and fill out 10 applications and nothing happens, or do I go to the streets and make something happen? Me, I never thought I would have a career hustling or selling drugs. I was just doing it to get the money for the things I needed. You know, studio time, keep my appearances up."

After his first prison term ended in 2009, "I started making mixtapes and I stopped selling drugs," he says. "I put my whole life into rap." In "Cold Hearted," on Dreams, he flashes back: "And we started off as kids, stomach touching our ribs / And them streets at night, like we ain't have nowhere to live."

Even then, he says, he had his eyes on the prize. "I always seen it."

The Meek Mill ethos is about unlimited ambition. "I named my whole brand Dreamchasers. . . . That's what my whole Instagram is about." (He has 5.2 million followers.) "It's not only for the street. It's not only for the ghetto. It's not only for black people. It's for people who come from nothing. Or you don't even have to come from nothing. You just have to have a dream to chase."

But did he ever dream that he'd be where he is now? A No. 1 album, the ability to sell out the Wells Fargo Center (he did it in March), a romance with the biggest female rapper in the game?

Of course.

From the beginning, he says, he was aiming for "the highest level. The Jay Z level. Puff Daddy. The Dr. Dre level."

Now, he's recalibrated. "I'm just moving toward building my own legacy. I don't want it to be 'He's the new Jay Z, or the new anything.' I just want it to be Meek Mill. I'm the new thing."


ddeluca@phillynews.com

215-854-5628 @delucadan