Song Review: Meek Mill's "What's Free"
By: Jalen Nash
In the last few years, mainstream awareness around the issue of mass incarceration has skyrocketed. The issue has become a hot-button topic on primetime television shows, radio programs, podcasts and print news sources.
Since being released from his unjust prison sentence, rapper Meek Mill has evolved into one of the more recognized advocates for this criminal justice reform in the United States.
His matured awareness and advocacy was laid out perfectly on the fifth track of his newly released album, Championships. The song is entitled, “What’s Free?” and it features Rick Ross and Jay-Z.
The track begins with melodic chords, using a classic sample of the Notorious B.I.G.’s infamous record, “What’s Beef?”. What was originally created as an iconic diss record was flipped into a record about freedom, mass incarceration and criminal justice reform.
The first voice we hear on the track is Meeks. Rapping parallel to the hard bass added by producers, Streetrunner and Tarik Azzouz, Meek begins the hook with his own definition of freedom, rapping, “What's free? Free is when nobody else could tell us what to be, Free is when the TV ain't controllin' what we see.” The lyrics of this hook set the tone for the rest of the record.
Coming in hard after Meek’s hook, Rick Ross blends into the song with his trademark smooth flow, monotone voice and luxury raps. He flows at a mid tempo, making clever word play, flashy imagery and a ton of pop culture references. Applying the concept to recent occurrences, he refers to the recent apprehension of artist 6ix9ine, rapping, “screaming "gang gang," now you wanna rat, Racketeering charges caught him on a tap, Lookin' for a bond, lawyers wanna tax, Purple hair got them boys on your back.”
On Meek’s verse, he uses his personal experiences as the basis for his lyrics. He raps about the unjust judicial process he faced, and the support he has received since then. Addressing both the conviction and the support that followed, he raps, “just for poppin’ a wheelie, my people march through the city.” Playing off of the words and values of our national anthem, he tries to point out the contradiction of our American creed, rapping, “oh, say you can see, I don’t feel like I’m free. Locked down in my cell, shackled from ankle to feet.”
The final verse of this song, is a clear favorite for verse of the year. It comes from Jay-Z and ties the track together perfectly. He began with the potent lyrics, “in the land of the free, where the blacks enslaved. Three-fifths of a man, I believe that’s the phrase.” Continuing on, his verse contained a variety of intricate rhyme schemes, mixxy flows and braggadocios bars that Hov has built his career on. Continuing his historical reflections on freedom, he goes on to rap, “they gave us pork and pig intestines, things you discarded that we ingested, we made the projects a wave, you came back, reinvested and gentrified it.”
This song is a commentary on the inequalities, disparities and injustices that our current system, not only continues to tolerate, but enable. Coming from the perspective of three black men, each with relevant experiences with the criminal justice system, who “defied the odds” to get where they are today- the commentary carries a level of authenticity and authority rare for any hit song.
In a “land of the free”, many people remain, to a considerable extent, not free. The system has ways of intentionally making some people more “free” than others. Constrained by a lack of education, a lack of opportunity or by the physical bars of a prison cell, many people get caught up in a system, according to its design. Meek summarizes his own experiences with a painful simile when he raps, “judge bangin’ that gavel turned me from slave to a king”.
Flaws in our system have directly affected the lives of, not only Meek Mill, but the millions of men and women incarcerated, ostracized and disenfranchised by our American system. That said, “What’s Free?” is an ode to those people. It carries a message that promotes outrage, resilience and hope. It shows that even though the “system” is meant to lock some people out, there are plenty of others, “tryna fix the system and the way they designed it”.
The lyrics of this song touch on different ideas of freedom, and how we can be restricted, and empowered, by each of them. To Meek, freedom is portrayed as a personal struggle, as he raps, “see how I prevailed now they try to knock me back.” On Rick Ross’ verse, he measures his freedom in terms of his success, rapping, “I’m from the South where they never make it this rich.” And on Jay-Z’s verse, he depicts freedom as a generational struggle, referencing historical forms of oppression, and ultimately concluding, “they gon’ have to kill me, Gradmama, I’m not they slave”.
“What’s Free” by Meek Mill, featuring Rick Ross and Jay-Z is one of the best songs of the year. Mixing its relevant social commentary, with a classic sample, and head-knocking bass, the record far exceeds expectations. The potential of this track is immeasurable, as its message transcends generations.