Will Ngo
November 28, 2018 at 09:00 AM EST

Beyoncé and Jay-Z, Lebron James and Kevin Hart, Philadelphia 76ers great Julius Erving and New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft.

From late 2017 to 2018, this disparate group of power players stepped forward to urge a reduced sentence for Meek Mill. The Philly-bred MC behind Dreams Worth More Than Money rose to fame with cutting depictions of Philadelphia street life (not to mention his two-year relationship with Nicki Minaj). But a series of early mistakes and bad luck led him to prison — something he addressed on his most recent EP, Legends of the Summer. “They wanna see me in a cage!” he exclaimed on “Millidelphia.” His new studio album, Championships, touts a similar message.

“This album is gonna hit all my fans, whether you’re a day one Meek Mill fan or you just learned about my music through my legal situation,” he tells EW. “You’ll have street records, you’ll have party records, you’ll have songs for the ladies, and then you’ll have more personal records that touch on everything I’ve been through the past year.”

Meek was released from prison in April. Months later, he found himself at the Hire! Philly Job & Resource Fair, an event for residents between the ages of 16 and 35 in search of gainful employment. Some were there to get on-the-spot assistance with résumés. Others had served time in prison and sought professional advice on how to re-enter society. The rapper was on hand to encourage the candidates to achieve their goals, a key part of his mission in, and beyond, music.

After a series of handshakes and hugs, Meek and a small entourage of Roc Nation staffers retreat to a backstage area for some time away from the camera flashes and grip-and-grin portraits. Meek then checks Instagram and is immediately floored by what he sees: young black boys wielding handguns. He shakes his head. The kids are glamorizing violence and, as he sees it, unaware of the pitfalls that await them in the United States justice system.

Johnny Nunez/WireImage

Meek knows firsthand: The #FreeMeekMill movement began due to the now 31-year-old’s recent prison stint, after two incidents involving police in 2017, one of which resulted in an arrest in August 2017 for popping wheelies on his dirt bike during a video shoot in New York City. Despite all charges being dropped, he was still sentenced to two to four years in a state penitentiary for technical probation violations. (Meek was arrested on drug and gun charges in 2007, at the age of 19, and was sentenced in 2009 to 11.5 to 23 months in prison, followed by 10 years’ probation, which has since been extended.) “To get through what I went through, you gotta be a superhero,” he says. “I was really broken.”

Observers — over 420,000 of whom signed a petition — believed the penalty was too stiff given the nature of the incident (an assistant district attorney and Meek’s probation officer had also recommended that he not serve jail time). Meek later addressed it on Legends cut “Stay Woke”: “Feel like the system tryna kill me, got arrested and the charge was F1 for poppin’ wheelies.”

While inside, Meek saw the outpouring of support, but his circumstance prevented him from fully embracing the love and hashtag that shed light on his battle. “It felt good, but it was overshadowed by the fact that I was locked in a cell,” Meek says. “So I never really felt the effect, but I got a few seconds to see the bright side, to see that people were standing behind me.”

Following his release — he was picked up via helicopter by 76ers co-owner Michael G. Rubin — Meek became the face of criminal justice reform in Pennsylvania and throughout the country, talking to NBC’s Lester Holt, The Tonight Show’s Jimmy Fallon, and Power 105.1’s the Breakfast Club about his legal struggles, which still remain. “He can’t even go to a club,” says producer Jahlil Beats, one of Meek’s closest friends and collaborators. “If a fight breaks out, and he’s anywhere near it, he goes back to jail.” Adds Rubin, who Meek is launching a justice reform foundation with, “He goes to bed knowing he’s not free. He still has tremendous angst about going back to prison.”

With legal threats hanging over him due to continued probation, Meek is noticeably guarded around strangers. In his interview with EW, the rapper keeps his answers short but opens up about his work with Rubin. “We’re trying to help on multiple levels,” Meek says. “You have people in prison who are there because they don’t have lawyer fees or proper representation. Why are people going in and out of jail? Why are they committing crimes?”

Kevin Mazur/Getty Images

When Meek is not doing interviews, he’s been at the studio “until 5 a.m.” working on the new record, which is out now. “I called this album Championships because I feel like a champion after overcoming poverty, street violence, racism, and prejudice in my legal situation to reach this point in my life and career,” Meek says. “This moment isn’t a given for people that come from my hood — many are either dead or in jail. To overcome all those issues and make it to this point, that’s the definition of being a champion. That’s what I want my story to be.”

Meek has also been busy doing one-off performances in his hometown (at September’s Made in America Festival) and in New York City for the philanthropic Tidal X Brooklyn concert, where 100 percent of the proceeds went to supporting nonprofit agencies that provide legal representation to those who’ve been wrongly convicted. Then there was the Drake reconciliation; Meek says he knew he’d perform with the rapper two days before it actually happened. To the rest of us, it was a surprise move. “We wanted to show love instead of going back and forth because of rap issues,” Meek says. “I don’t like to say beef, because that indicates something different. We just thought it was time to spread love.”

This is now Meek’s mindset: Instead of dwelling on the past — the now-squashed beef with rival Drake, his breakup with Minaj, the arrests and court dates — Meek wants to get to the why: Why is the justice system unfairly stacked against minorities? To be in prison is to “live in hell on earth,” he asserts, and these days, he’s leading a simpler life.

By all accounts, Championships still finds him taking it day by day. “I’ve fought through the system,” Meek says. “I’m coming from a different point of view now. I’m talking about the ghettos of America, the world I come from. I’ve been in a bad environment more years than I’ve been in a good environment. I’m still traumatized by what I’ve seen and been through. I just want to inspire people.”

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