A lot has changed for Meek Mill over the course of the past year. In November 2017, the Philly rapper was sentenced for two to four years in state prison for violating probation in a nearly 10-year-old drug and gun case. #FreeMeek subsequently became the focus of a national conversation regarding the criminal justice system. In April, he was released and granted bail. “While the past five months have been a nightmare, the prayers, visits, calls, letters and rallies have helped me stay positive,” he said in a statement. His budding advocacy efforts are now fueled by a desire to give back to the community that stood by him. During a recent appearance on CNN, Meek spoke candidly about prison reform and how formerly incarcerated people are “trapped inside a system that’s extremely hard for us to get out (of).” He also honed in on how certain elements of the criminal justice system target marginalized people. “It’s keeping many young black men caught up in the system without even committing crimes.”

Meek never expected to be the underdog. His “Dreams & Nightmares (Intro)” was the soundtrack to his hometown of Philly. He dated international popstar Nicki Minaj and “did shit with Mariah.” But when his world began to crumble around him beginning in 2015, his demise seemed almost improbable. It certainly wasn’t what he envisioned when he burst onto the mainstream scene in 2011 after signing to Rick Ross’ Maybach Music Group label. In the aftermath of his release from the Chester, PA State Correctional Institution, he very easily could have recoiled from the political spotlight. With the odds stacked against him, it seems unlikely that anyone would’ve overtly chastised him if he’d chosen to role over and play the victim. Instead, he rose above adversity and emerged on the other side more resilient and focused than ever. The product of his efforts was Championships, an album on which he finally regained his voice and which proved to be the bookend to his darkest hour.

On Sunday night, as a dull drizzle seemed to pulsate amidst the flashing frenzy of Times Square, Meek sat down with Elliott Wilson as part of #CRWN, a live interview series distributed through TIDAL. The conversation added a new dimension to an album that showcased his growth as an artist and as a man. Here’s what stood out.

1. The Art of the Intro

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Meek has always known how to make an entrance. As the ornate crystal chandeliers and velvet drapes of Playstation Theater shimmered beneath faded aquatic blue spotlights, the hungry 31-year-old made his presence known. Cloaked in flowing mink and shining from head to toe, Meek looked comfortable and in control as he sat perched like royalty on a chic black leather seat. The triumphant reveal was capped off by the booming baseline of the intro to Championships, the latest in a line of brilliant openers.

Ever since “Dreams & Nightmares (Intro)” set the bar, Meek has made it a point to appropriately set the stage for what’s to come on each respective project. This one is no different. Produced by Papamitrou, “Intro” refurbishes Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight,” a song that Meek said he first heard in classic hip hop film Paid In Full. In typical fashion, the momentum is intoxicating: what begins as a bare bones sample quickly becomes a rumbling torrent of percussion and sirens. Meek said it best: “Your first impression is your best impression.” It’s yet another memorable entry from an artist who has exhibited a clear mastery of the album introduction.

2. Old Meek Meets New

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For those worried that Meek would become complacent or preachy in light of his recent trials and tribulations, fear not. Championships is every bit a Meek Mill album, albeit one showcasing a new and improved Robert Rihmeek Williams. There’s still plenty of runtime devoted to raw introspection (“Trauma”) and opulence (“Splash Warning”), but there are striking undercurrents that reveal newfound maturity. Meek sounds emboldened rather than defeated by the circumstances of his experience, and he deftly weaves prison reform efforts into the music without coming off as self-righteous. Incarceration not only sparked maturation, but a new passion and purpose.

Although there is occasional filler material on the lengthy 19-track project, Meek made it abundantly clear that he had no interest in hogging the spotlight during the creation process and wanted to enlist special guests to help him get his message out. At this point in his life, he has nothing left to prove, an attitude that is best embodied by the outro of the album’s titular track: “We had to beat the streets/Beat the system, beat racism, beat poverty/And now we made it through all that we at the championship.”

3. Building on a Legacy

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As if Meek, Rick Ross, and Jay-Z sharing the mic over a classic Biggie instrumental wasn’t enough, HOV delivered a show-stopping gem of a verse on “What’s Free” that immediately became the topic of conversation. With Meek tackling a corrupt justice system and the accompanying narrative that young black men are perceived as a “menace to society,” and Rick Ross throwing an unfortunately phrased line at Tekashi 6ix9ine, Jay set to rest any claims that he’s washed up and knocked it out of the park with a verse that dissects the uneven road to financial freedom.

There’s more to his words than the erroneous article titles regarding his shaky relationship with Kanye West; Jay wastes no time in painting a picture of black excellence that is forced to shoulder the burden of a country trapped in the talons of racism. It’s a convincing performance from an esteemed emcee who Meek has always admired. “I represent the path that HOV created…I grew up being a hustler.”

4. A Fitting & Long Overdue Homecoming

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When Michael Rubin, the co-owner of the Philadelphia 76ers, and comedian Kevin Hart showed up on the block to visit Meek, their response to their friend’s cramped quarters was laughably muted: “This isn’t that bad.”

Meek recalled the moment he learned that he was free on bail, a realization that he says came while watching the news in his prison cell. The rest of his day settled into a dizzying blur after he quickly packed up family pictures and letters from supporters. Rubin personally picked him up and rushed him back to Philly on his private helicopter to attend the team’s playoff game versus the Miami Heat. “It was a culture shock,” Meek said of ringing the bell in an arena packed with 20,000 fans overjoyed at his return.

5. Burying the Hatchet

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Making amends with former foes is no small task, but that’s exactly what Meek did with his longtime rival.

“Me and Drake been contacting one another for a year now,” said Meek of the ubiquitous Toronto star. He then proceeded to recount a hilariously awkward interaction in which he was on a double date with Jay-Z and Beyoncé while he was still seeing Nicki Minaj. Meek stated that Jigga was scrolling through the playlist over dinner when Drake’s visceral Grammy-nominated diss track “Back to Back” started playing; the “Rosé Red” rapper promptly excused himself from the table. Even a year ago, it seemed exceedingly unlikely that the two would patch it up after their 2015 altercation that culminated in one of the most heated and highly-publicized rap beefs in recent memory. Yet what was once a relationship beyond repair is now a formidable connection, as is readily apparent by the Wheezy-produced “Going Bad.” Beyond the frivolous boasts, there’s not much to lyrically unpack on the track, but it’s a welcome sight to see the “R.I.C.O.” and “Amen” collaborators moving past their previous indiscretions to join forces once more.

6. Transitioning From a Young Buck to a Wise Veteran

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Tekashi 6ix9ine, the self-proclaimed “King of New York,” has found himself in the headlines for all the wrong reasons as of late after his arrest on racketeering charges among others. 6ix9ine pled “not guilty” to all six charges after discovering he is facing a potential life sentence for his involvement with his former team Tr3yway.

When asked about the troubled rainbow-haired entertainer’s current situation, Meek was forthright and plain spoken on the matter. “I used to always want to tell that kid, ‘You give out that certain kind of energy. You give out that energy, and that energy actually comes back.'” Last night, he added a modifier to his previous statement, seemingly posing a rhetorical question as to the severity of the young rapper’s actions and whether it warranted such a response and punishment: “He was moving wrong, but he got locked up on the same charges as John Gotti.” The commentary stemmed from a closing discussion regarding Meek’s image and perceived power as a role model. “To make it far, you gotta believe in yourself more than anyone else will believe in you,” he said. “I’m not an activist…(but) I got a platform to help, so Imma hold it down.” His closing advice to the youth elicited uneasy laughter from the crowd, who seemed to sense the stark reality behind his words: “Learn how to hit them gears.”