The memes were always wrong about Meek Mill. To believe it, the Philly street rapper has been trapped in a Drake-sized rut since 2015, unable to shake it off. He’s been taking an ungodly amount of Ls, and why does he rap like he has to pay for snacks at the theatre anyway? For years, an unwieldy perception about Meek Mill continued to persist, something he’s taken great lengths to dispel. But for a brief period, those Ls looked insurmountable as a lengthy series of probation violations that had continued to dog his success was ready to swallow him whole after the NYPD arrested him in 2017 for riding dirt bikes through Manhattan, resulting in a five-month sentence in Pennsylvania state prison. These violations stemmed from a gun and drug charge that started when he was 19. Meek turned 31 this year.

Meek’s prison sentence and the sea of goodwill and support that came to surround him was what finally dispelled the narrative. Ghostwriting beef becomes insignificant when you’re writing op-eds about prison reform for the New York Times. “I got lucky, but because of dysfunctional, discriminatory rules.” Meek wrote, referring to how visible minorities are disproportionately treated by the American criminal justice system. “Most don’t.”

His case isn’t over but this reprieve hangs over Championships, his first album post-prison and his first project in recent times that really feels like a victory lap. Previous Meek projects told stories of Meek the underdog looking to claim the streets for himself and Philly, a compelling picture when juxtaposed with his legal troubles. Supported by Don Cannon, Bangladesh, Wheezy, Hit-Boy, Cardo and a slew of others on the production boards, as well as features from Rick Ross, Cardi B, Drake, Jay-Z and 21 Savage, Championships bucks this trend by letting Meek win before the album even begins.

"How the fuck you get a two to four and bail out?" he raps on the album’s intro, the surprise still palpable in his voice. Trouble still weighs heavy on Meek’s mind. There are still cases to beat, friends to mourn and friends to free. There’s a new level of depth here inspired by his experiences in prison that result in some of his best performances on Championships. Previous comeback single “Stay Woke” sought to embrace Meek’s budding advocacy work, boasting a Miguel chorus and a woozy vibe that hinted at a new sound forward. It was an awkward use of Meek’s skills, telling that the song didn’t make it to the final tracklist for Championships, indicating a retreat to the street sounds Meek knows best. It’s not a total 180; Meek’s recent advocacy work goes hand in hand with his desire to build motivation out of his stories and inspire with his achievements. To reflect is to stunt.

Ambition and Meek – name a better duo. Meek’s desire for a classic project has been an ongoing concern of his since Dreams and Nightmares, but on Championships, he’s taken to conquering the sounds of the past, looking to insert himself onto the rap Mount Rushmore by any means necessary. There’s subverting Phil Collins’ “In The Air Tonight” for a moody intro that explodes and crackles as the best Meek Mill intros do. There’s flipping Biggie’s “What’s Beef” to “What’s Free,” a chilling indictment of the prison-industrial complex, even going as far as capturing a fire-hot Jay-Z verse before barreling into “Respect The Game,” a song built with the same Lonnie Linston Smith sample that built Jay's "Dead Presidents.”

Songs like “Trauma” and "Oodles O' Noodles Babies,” which explore personal topics and hardships Meek has rapped extensively in the past take on a new light in the wake of his prison experiences. The title track, crafted on a foundation of wailing Toney Fountaine saxophone, plumbs Meek’s memories of a young man, capturing scenes of wearing Old Navy, blood splattered on Nike Air Max 93s, gunshots sounding like music out of trailing Buicks in a tone of relief.

Meek has one of the best voices in a rap, a blare capable of cutting through anything. “See comin' from where I come from, we had to beat the streets.” He raps on the outro for Championships, taking that distinctive jet roar down to a gust. “Beat the system, beat racism, beat poverty. And now we made it through all that we at the championship.” Meek previously toasted his judge for denying his bail on “Lord Knows,” inspiring him to go even harder – the MO he’s embraced ever since. Meek has been beset by a long series of bad circumstances and timings but Championships captures him rising to the occasion at a time when everything lined up. Here, Meek collects his wins and makes a triumphant toast, to cheering applause.