Is Meek Mill’s career over?
Does the sentence of two to four years in state prison handed down by Common Pleas Court Judge Genece E. Brinkley on Monday strike a death blow to the career of the Philadelphia rapper born Robert Rihmeek Williams?
Don’t bet on it.
Sure, Brinkley’s surprisingly tough sentence for parole violations that stunned a Center City courtroom and that sent Mill immediately into custody was a huge setback for the Dreams and Nightmares emcee.
Mill’s third album, which hit No. 3 on the Billboard charts when it was released in May, is called Wins & Losses. Based on two arrests this year — one for fighting at an airport in St. Louis, one for recklessly driving a dirt bike in Manhattan — he was deemed to have violated the terms of his parole, dating to a 2008 drug and firearms conviction.
Any way you look at it, Brinkley’s decision counts as an enormous L. Hip-hop careers don’t last forever, and Mill is already, at 30, a veteran on the scene. Under the terms of Brinkley’s decision, the rapper would need to serve two years before becoming eligible for state parole supervision.
Presuming the sentence stands — when asked whether he was going to appeal, the rapper’s lawyer, Brian J. McMonagle, said “You’re god- right I am” — that would take Mill out of circulation until at least the close of the decade.
Pop music audiences are fickle and memories short. But despite his travails, Mill has many factors arguing in his favor.
In a genre that often romanticizes criminal history, doing real hard time is anything but a career-killer. It’s a currency of sorts to flirt with that danger.
For one, there’s a long history of rappers who have gone to prison at the height of their fame and then come back from incarceration more popular than ever. Tupac Shakur served eight months at Rikers Island for sexual assault in 1995, released his biggest album up to then, Me Against the World, while he was in lock-up, and his even bigger All Eyez on Me the next year.
Last year, Atlanta rapper Gucci Mane emerged from five months in jail with the songs “First Day Out of Tha Feds” and “On Me,” the latter of which made the 2Pac parallel by sampling the late rapper. Mane’s new album, Mr. Davis, topped the R&B/hip-hop charts when it was released last month.
Then there’s Mill. After serving five months in 2014 for parole violations related to those 2008 charges, Mill emerged in 2015 with Dreams Worth More Than Money.
It was the first chart-topping album for the artist, whose reputation is built on earnestness and authenticity. He presented himself on it as a changed man who had learned his lessons the hard way. “Shout-out to the judge that denied me my bail,” he rapped on the album’s opening track, “Lord Knows,” speaking of Brinkley, who has overseen his case for nearly a decade. “It made me smarter, it made me go harder.”
Since then, Mill has acted in ways that don’t appear to have been so smart after all, incurring the wrath of Brinkley, who on Monday addressed him and said, “I gave you break after break, and you basically just thumbed your nose at this court.” He now faces a stiffer punishment than he received for his initial conviction and previous parole violation.
But the perception that Mill’s punishment is too harsh for the crime could help him endure. The immediate reaction to Monday’s news was support from hip-hop heads and fellow entertainers. A #FreeMeekMill movement rapidly sprang up on social media, with comments like “So Meek Mill got 2-4 years for riding a d— dirtbike??,” from Twitter user DJJustBeatz typifying the fan reaction.
Celebrities also voiced their support: Philly comic and actor Kevin Hart posted a photo of himself with the rapper at a Sixers game on Instagram and wrote “God sometimes put the toughest battle on the strongest soldiers. I’m here for you man!!!! My brother for life.” Rapper T.I. wrote: “Was wit u then & WESTILL WIT U Now!!! This too shall pass. You got this!!!”
Mill already made it through one potentially career-crushing episode when he came up on the short end of his 2015 feud with Canadian rapper Drake, whom he was unable to match in a battle of clever character assassination. He held on to his audience in part because he’s known as a truth-teller who speaks to the streets. “I spit reality,” he told me this year.
The reality he’s facing now is severe, and making it through another prison sentence is a much tougher challenge than surviving a metaphorical beat-down in a rap battle. It’ll test the loyalty of fans who have stuck with him so far, but who won’t wait forever.
Of those fans, potentially the most important is Jay-Z, the rapper and mogul who brought Mill out for a surprise encore at the Made in America festival on the Ben Franklin Parkway in September.
Mill is signed to Jay-Z’s Roc Nation management company, so the entertainment mogul is invested in seeing Mills’ career endure. He certainly has the financial wherewithal to support his signee, and he’s also taken up criminal justice reform as a personal cause of late.
On Monday, Jay-Z pointed out on Facebook that Brinkley’s sentence went against the recommendation of both the assistant district attorney and Mill’s probation officer. The hip-hop mahoff called it “unjust and heavy handed. We will always stand by and support Meek Mill, both as he attempts to right this wrongful sentence and then returning to his musical career.”
That kind of support may not ensure that Mill will get out of jail without serving his complete sentence, but it does add to the impression that when he does, there will still be an audience waiting for him.