The first voice heard on Wins & Losses, the new album by Meek Mill, belongs not to the Philadelphia rapper, but to Eric Thomas, the motivational speaker also known as ET the Hip Hop Preacher.
"You have to eat the dream, you have to sleep the dream, you have to dream the dream!" the YouTube orator barks out with drill-sergeant authority. "You have to see it when nobody else sees it. You have to feel it when it's not tangible. … You gotta be possessed with the dream!"
"One day I heard that, and it just uplifted me," the 30-year-old rapper, born Robert Rihmeek Williams, said this week. He was calling the night after celebrating the release of Wins & Losses (Maybach Music/ Atlantic Records) with a free hometown show at the Fillmore in Fishtown. "It made me want to work harder and chase my dreams."
For Wins & Losses, the rapper, who prides himself on his realness — "I spit reality," he says — welcomed the extra motivational push.
His third album comes at a crucial juncture for the South Philly-born, North Philly-bred emcee. Its 2015 predecessor, Dreams Worth More Than Money, was a breakthrough, entering the Billboard charts at No. 1.
At the Fillmore, Mill beamed as he showed the roomful of hardcore followers, whom he calls "my Day Ones," the platinum record honoring Dreams' success. "A platinum record is kind of like getting a ring," the avid basketball fan said, talking on the phone while being driven south on I-95 for a similarly free show in Washington, D.C. "It's like winning a championship."
Shortly after Dreams was released, though, it was overshadowed by the war of words Mill initiated with Drake, whom he accused of not writing his own rhymes. In the court of social media opinion, Mill took it on the chin in the feud, which broke out as he was touring with then paramour Nick Minaj, a relationship whose official end was marked by a tweet from The Pinkprint rapper in January.
So, to maintain stature in the rap game, it was essential for Mill to come back hard and strong on Wins & Losses. And that he did, beginning with the opening title cut in which the always-dogged, ever-earnest rapper, who labeled himself "Mr. Philadelphia" back in 2010, reminds himself that "Mama told me if you fall, never stay down."
The aggressive tone continues on "Heavy Heart," a soulful, sorrowful song endorsed last weekend by LeBron James, who posted on his Instagram story a video of himself head-nodding to it. In the song, Mill expresses dismay at unnamed betrayers who "said they with you when they really not. … The streets left me with a heavy heart."
"I feel like every album is an important album," said Mill, a digitally savvy self-marketer with more than 12 million Instagram followers. He whet appetites for Wins & Losses with two Meekend Music EPs, the first of which included "Left Hollywood," which declared his intent to "get back to the trenches."
Wins & Losses might mean more than most, he acknowledged, "because I was involved in a lot of controversy coming out of a relationship, and there was a lot of speculation."
He doesn't mention Minaj by name, and only cites her directly once on "1942 Flows," in which he raps: "So when you see me out don't ask me about no Nicki." (On the same song, he also calls out the president, and rails against police violence against African Americans: "Trump ain't feelin' us / Cops still killin' us."
"I wanted to break down the perception of winning and losing," said Mill, who was 5 when his father was murdered. "Actually, in the culture that I come from, it's impossible to lose in the position I'm in, coming from nothing and providing for a lot of people to eat. I just wanted to break that down, the goods and bads in my life, and pour it out on my record."
The album comes with a 25-minute film, streaming for free on YouTube, by Philadelphia director Spike Jordan.
Of the feud with Drake, he said, "I don't regret anything. And I'm a stronger person now."
But at the time, "I was kind of out of character with the way I moved. People who know me know that I move with coordination and precision." He was caught up "using drugs, stuff like that," he says, specifically Percocet painkillers. "But I jumped out of it. Snapped back and started focusing on myself."
One of the focal points of Wins & Losses is "Young Black America," a cautionary tale that Mill calls "an eye-opening song."
It opens with a street scene: "Yeah, I was on that corner, tryna get my coins up / Coppers run up on us and we turn to Jackie Joyner."
(Mill's legal problems mainly stem from a 2008 weapons charge. He served jail time, but has been found to have violated probation several times, most recently last year when he was sentenced to 90 days of house arrest. He's required to live in Philadelphia but can tour, and has five years' probation left.)
"Young Black America" argues that success in music and athletics can be a trap that perpetuates poverty: "Young n–s brainwashed, they just wanna rap and hoop." In conversation, Mill worries over talk of increasing minimum sentences for drug offenders "getting locked up for doing what they seen everyone do their whole life."
"Don't get me wrong: I'm not saying that people who break the law shouldn't go to jail," he said. "But their mama is probably at work or on drugs, their father is probably locked away in prison or the graveyard. … These kids are facing 10 to 20 years.
"We need people who want to be doctors, lawyers, engineers, everything."
But doesn't the rare success of Meek Mill also dangle an unrealistic fantasy?
"Yeah, but I always tell them that it's not an easy job," he said. "I show content that shows them what it takes to get there." He had NBA dreams, too, but realized "I hadn't worked hard enough. … As an individual, you're going to have to make your own decision at some point. But my whole point is, you can make it as anything."
Speaking of the NBA, "I've been down for the Sixers for a minute now," he said. "I'm trusting the process. It's about Wins & Losses. You can't have a good season every year. But I feel like now is our time."
Young Sixers like Joel Embiid, who took the stage with him at the Wells Fargo Center in February, "are good friends of mine."
Does he offer fatherly guidance? "I wouldn't say fatherly," he said, laughing. "But I try to make sure they don't make the same mistakes. If I could be 22 again, I would be better than I was when I was 22, 'cause I know more now."
At the Fillmore, Mill showcased kinetic rapper Recohavoc. He recently signed his cousin Omelly and producer Papamitrou to his Dream Chasers label.
His focus, though, has been on his own career.
"I had to get my business straight," he said. "I had to show people my talent and worth in the past year." With Minaj, he said, "just having to split my time in half was kind of difficult. Now I can focus on myself."
He's proud of Wins & Losses. "We came through for sure, 100 percent." He has taken congratulatory calls from Jay-Z, P. Diddy, and his Maybach Music boss, Rick Ross.