After taking an uncharacteristically lengthy three-year break, Philadelphia rapper Meek Mill returns with his fifth studio album – although, not much has changed in the interim. Meek has one of the game’s most reliable and instantly recognizable skillsets in that electrifying and piercing yelp of a vocal delivery, capable of elevating any uptempo trap banger to an absolute frenzy. Still, he’s never been much of an albums artist, always delivering a couple highlights that stay in rotation for years but falling short when he veers away from his strengths for extended periods at a time. Expensive Pain is no different, as Meek keeps up his status as a consistently just-above-average rapper and loads things up with hit-or-miss features. Although Meek’s outlandish flexes are often appreciated when shouted so confidently, gone as well is the poignant political talk that coloured his previous project, Championships, making for an album that’s a little more devoid of substance than we’re used to. When he’s on his game, there’s almost nobody that can provide a direct shot of musical adrenaline like he can, so as is tradition – comb through here and pick out your favourites, because Meek can still deliver the hits.
It’s always interesting that fans so widely agree that Meek always begins his albums with the strongest track, anticipating adding another to his legacy of intros – they’re absolutely correct, and if Meek clearly has such an understanding of where his greatest talents lie to go 5 for 5, it doesn’t explain the rest of his misguided exploits. This time, Meek opens his album with not one, but two of the hardest-hitting tracks here. “Intro (Hate on Me)” samples the grandiose and operatic instrumental of Nas’ classic “Hate Me Now,” as Meek unleashes a series of breakneck triplet flows amidst the appropriate sound of revving engines – Meek is firing on all cylinders, especially as the beat switches to an even darker mode in the back half. The energy continues onto “Outside (100 MPH),” which brings some more repetitive and quotable party-starting bars as Meek lines up his punchiest syllables with the biggest beat hits. There’s something incredible about Meek’s ad-libs, doubling up his lines with a take where his voice rises to a frenzied fever pitch, like a built-in concert audience yelling all his lyrics back at him. The percussion starts kicking in harder as he yells “open it up,” and I can’t imagine the chaos this would incite at a live show. Things take a turn for the worse pretty quickly afterwards, with the thankfully brief “On My Soul” sounding awkwardly off-the-cuff as Meek emotes over a derivative piano instrumental and single “Sharing Locations.” The chilling kids’ chorus in the instrumental works great, but Meek doesn’t have much chemistry with features Lil Durk and Lil Baby, who he quickly trades lines with. Durk’s plaintive hook feels like a dip in the energy, when things should be as frantic as Meek’s extended 2nd verse amidst this rain of hi-hats and bass.
Meek keeps most of the rest of the album’s highlights in its opening half. While his slower tracks never have quite the same replay value and bite, the title track “Expensive Pain” sees him showing off some of his more impressive technical aspects and internal rhyme schemes as he delivers something of a state of the union address about the pitfalls of fame over a dynamic and soulful beat. Kehlani appears on the track “Ride for You,” sounding incredible as ever on the hook as she provides a smoother counterpart to Meek’s unhinged energy as the two provide a modern update to the “Mesmerize” formula as Meek appropriately rhymes over an Ashanti sample. Meek recruits one of the only rappers who can match him in terms of off-the-rails, uncontrollable energy in A$AP Ferg for the eerie banger that is “Me (FWM),” which if juxtaposed with the album’s opening two tracks could have created the most riot-inciting runs of songs this year. Rhyming over a horror movie-style plunked piano riff, the two do what they do best and bellow some quirky and braggadocious bars with a memorably playful rhyme scheme. Bringing back a forgotten relic from Drake’s brief fascination with UK drill to redeem himself, Giggs’ appearance on the track “Northside Southside” is another standout feature here that matches up well with Meek, which can prove to be a rather difficult task – in this case, due to hitting the same wild-eyed conviction with that understated UK flow.
Meek doing what he does so well at times can be somewhat of a double-edged sword, since his maximum level can be so infectious that when a pale imitation comes along later in the tracklisting, an enjoyable track on the surface doesn’t hit quite as hard when we know what he’s truly capable of. A track like “Hot” with Moneybagg Yo sees the two get into an aggressive, desensitized mode that works well with Meek’s wheelhouse, but there’s something about the calmer parts of the instrumental that just make me reminisce on the nonstop barrage of earlier. “Blue Notes 2” certainly comes closer with Meek sounding absolutely incredulous during his second verse and blazing guitar licks in the background, but there’s still a couple periods where things calm down. “We Slide” is easily the melodic track that Meek pulls off the best here, over one of those rare contemplative piano-driven rap beats that’s elegant enough to still break through the monotony and pull on the heartstrings a little, although Young Thug’s squeaky high voice kills the mood a little. “Tweaking” recruits rising star Vory to make a couple dad jokes and interpolate “No Diggity,” of all things, making for a decidedly uncool move from someone you’d likely perceive as one of the “realest.”
Meek’s solo tracks leading up to the end are another inconsistent series of tracks. The similarly-titled tracks “Love Train” and “Love Money” once again see him get into a melodic territory, something that at this point he should understand simply doesn’t work out at all – his nasal, heavily Auto-tuned singing voice gets truly grating in short order. Meek spends the final run of three tracks to get a little more emotional, offering some tributes to fallen friends and family while speaking about the lifestyle he escaped from. While the somber, contemplative approach isn’t always the most engaging musical approach for him, Brent Faiyaz’s exasperated chorus on closing track “Halo” certainly hits hard as he hopes for an end to the violence.
Despite the inconsistencies across this project, almost paradoxically, Meek Mill feels like one of the hip-hop stars that you can always count on for exactly what you’d expect. It’s a formula that works for him, I just wish he’d put in a little more effort to make some of the intro-style tracks take up more of the runtime.
Favourite Tracks: Intro (Hate On Me), Ride For You, Me (FWM), Outside (100 MPH)
Least Favourite Track: On My Soul