A solid and often revelatory album, "Expensive Pain" certainly doesn't displace Meek Mill from his hard-earned position among hip-hop’s front-runners, but it seems unlikely that it’ll be the moment where all of his naysayers see the error of their ways, either.
Historically, album number five can be a difficult proposition for high-profile MCs. Operating in that mid-career stage that can lead to an uninspired artistic malaise or a magnificent new chapter, the fifth record can be "make or break" in determining whether their best days are behind them or if they can be an enduring superstar with plenty of wind left in their sails.
In some ways, it’s understandable. After all, it must be hard to amass that same fire when you’re a contented multi-millionaire. But for others, it’s been an opportunity to re-energize both themselves and their fanbase.
Where JAY-Z ostensibly used his fifth project to showcase his label’s talent with Roc La Familia: The Dynasty before turning things up another gear on album six, Eminem was making for the door with Encore. On the other end of the spectrum, Outkast became a fully-fledged, Grammy Album Of The Year award-winning pop culture powerhouse with Speakerboxx/The Love Below. While for Kanye West, the fifth go-around yielded the sprawling, maximalist masterpiece that is My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
From its no-holds-barred examinations of excess and internal strife through to the abstract cover art, it’s clear that Meek's fifth album, Expensive Pain, is aiming for something on the Kanye spectrum of magnitude.
Despite serving as the follow-up to what is widely regarded as his most accomplished project with 2018’s Championships, Meek has sought to make his case that this is the project that will silence his detractors and magnify his position in hip-hop.
"I used to hear speculation that I’m not really keeping up with music," Meek informed Zane Lowe during a recent press interview. "I have been in this game for ten years, I felt like this is the year that I really want mine because I sit in the studio by myself with a producer and go ‘battlefield’ with the world, trying to remain a top artist."
On his latest project,Meek steps away from both the Dreamchaser Record CEO’s office and futile, social media beef, to make a case for fame being as corrosive as anything else in life. Particularly when the demons of the past still live within you. And for the most part, he relays the message as compellingly as he can.
From the earliest stages of his career, Meek has a well-documented tendency to kick off projects with both barrels ablaze and Expensive Pain proves to be no exception. Just as the titular offering from Wins & Losses served as a primer for what Meek is capable of, “Intro (Hate On Me)” is an unabashed reminder of why he's held in such regard in the first place. Conjuring up riveting bars over a menacing, Cardo-helmed reimagining of Nas and Puffy’s classic anthem "Hate Me Now," Meek sounds ready and willing to take on everyone. By the time that the extended lyrical flex of “Outside (100 Mph)” follows suit, it’s apparent that Meek hasn’t mellowed out over the past year. On the contrary, he’s arguably become more tenacious and regularly raps as though his life depends on it over the course of the project.
WATCH: Meek Mill "Intro (Hate On Me)" music video
Although you couldn’t exactly call it a concept album, Expensive Pain is at its most essential when he presents his newly charmed life as the sort of double-edged sword that the record’s handle hints at. Dispelling the idea of wealth as the antidote to past suffering, Meek gives us an overview of the trauma, regret, and unresolved grievances that resurface in his rare moments of stillness.
Submerged in a thoughtful instrumental from Darko, Vianey OJ & DZL, the album’s title track rightfully serves as its centerpiece. Free from ego or posturing, it sees Meek recount his steps from rags to riches while poetically depicting the ruinous state that it’s left his head in.
She seen me cuddle with my stick, said, "Boy, you need some therapy"
And I can't lie, I prolly do, 'cause I still have dreams of n***s airin' me.
A message delivered with unreserved humility, this clarity creeps back in on “Love Money” when he unloads a neat summation of how your emotions can be your undoing in the streets and leave you “whacked in December.”
Meek isn’t phoning it in whatsoever on Expensive Pain. However, that doesn't necessarily mean that his earnest attempts at trying something different always land on the right side of authenticity.
Where he’d dabbled with the sound on previous efforts, this project sees Meek traverse into the world of autotune in a more decisive and possibly irreversible manner. And at times, it feels like concessions are being made to what's prevailing at the moment rather than where his own strengths lie.
“On My Soul,” complete with its atmospheric piano, feels like an effort to infiltrate the lane of Rod Wave and Roddy Richh that ultimately feels jarring, and while he does fare better on the less melodramatic "Love Train," there’s still an overhanging disconnect on many of these melodic moments.
In the case of the Kehlani-assisted "Ride For You," the pair seize a chance to tap into the template left by Ja Rule and Ashanti for an old-school take on the middle ground between hip-hop and R&B. Elsewhere, Meek and Lil Uzi Vert serve as a Philadelphian all-star team on "Blue Notes 2," with Uzi playing Meek the ultimate compliment by coming out of his usual pocket to rap over a rousing, blues guitar-laden instrumental from longtime producer Xander and Nick Papz.
From the Blackstreet-interpolating "Tweaking" with Vory to Boi-1da dropping off a murky instrumental for Meek and A$AP Ferg to unleash a remorseless stream of bars on across "Me (FWM)," there is no shortage of instances where Meek displays his ability to play well with others. In fact, it is this ability to find a synergy with other artists that produces some of the album highlights.
On "Hot," Meek and Moneybagg Yo dutifully bring their A-game over a monstrous beat that has all the signifiers of being used as fighter walkout music and NFL entrances for years to come. On the other side of the coin, the Thugger accompanied "We Slide" appears to have similarly long-lasting shelf life, albeit in the form of a bittersweet rumination on the life that molded them.
LISTEN: Meek Mill "Hot" feat. Moneybagg Yo
Where tracks such as the Lil Durk and Lil Baby-aided "Sharing Locations" see Meek getting lost in the shuffle as he attempts to mimic their flows, any momentary missteps are made up for on the back-end of the record.
Nine years on from his untimely passing, Meek examines the delayed fuse on grief during "Angels (Rip Lil Snupe)" and boldly exhumes the moment he learned of his death, proclaiming that "I was high, didn't get to feel it."
When Meek is in this meditative vein, his talents as a writer are laid bare and album closer, "Halo"-- which comes complete with an otherworldly hook from Brent Faiyaz-- presents Meek as stranded between pining for the life that he’d once led and acknowledging that everything he’s experienced has permanently rewired his psyche, spitting:
Tryna find trust in my heart, but it don't work right
Think I'm gettin' numb to the pain, 'cause it don't hurt right
I just wanna go to my hood, wheelie a dirt bike
And post up on the block with the ones that think that I forgot how we was
On these tracks, it’s evident that Meek feels as confident in his abilities as he did when he was sporting dreadlocks and effortlessly rhyming on Philadelphian street corners. As a result, it makes the moments on Expensive Pain where he's trying to appeal to audiences and sacrificing his own vision in the process, all the more frustrating. When he simply says what’s on his mind, he’s as captivating as ever.