It would be wrong to call “Expensive Pain” the most serious album of Philadelphia-born rapper and social justice/prison reform activist Meek Mill’s nearly 20-year-career, a vocation that started with a score of locally loved mixtapes before dropping a debut studio album, “Dreams & Nightmares,” in 2012. Mill was always serious, even stern, whether his frowny-face loomed over the holy roll of “Amen,” the rough family portraiture of “Otherside of America,” or the aspirational desires of his album debut’s title track.
So, Mill has no problem being bellicose and earnest. Mill also has no problem goofing off or rhapsodizing about hip-hop’s gold standard of getting paid and maintaining power. Somehow, though, both states of being — the concerned citizen-activist and the carefree carouser — couldn’t really coexist in one place. Even when he released “Champions” in November 2018, seven months post-prison release (following a controversial five-month incarceration sentence for violating probation), with the world hanging on his every word toward jail reform and social justice, his records felt lopsided.
But “Expensive Pain” is Mill’s best, most fully rounded recorded effort: an album that finally portrays all sides of the rapper’s rise, fall, struggles and revivals, to say nothing of his skills as a writer and as an aggressive flow-acist. As pugnacious as Mill has been in large-scale concert situations (as recently as his surprise pop-up at September’s Made in America festival) or small-club rhyme battles, such truculence has rarely come through on even his best albums, like 2015’s “Dreams Worth More Than Money.” On the exacting “Expensive Pain,” every rap, rhyme and curt stanza comes at you like a confident punch in the face, one where its executor knows just how the knuckle sandwich will land, including when Meek gets all vulnerable and brings up tender issues of mental health (a rare topic in rap) and the gore-without-the-glory of prison life.
The slippery superficiality of moneyed braggadocio (“Sharing Locations” with feature guests Lil Baby and Lil Durk) is a ripened part of Mill’s “Expensive” décor. More so, the rumination and heartbreak over lost, fellow artist friends (“Angels (RIP Lil Snupe)”) and the ruined reality that the good life doesn’t last forever (“Outside 1000 MPH”) also fills Mill’s fifth studio effort. For every diamond and every death, for every feeling of loss and insecure emotion, Mill comes out with hope and real brio on his side – a confidence that goes way beyond any mere humble-brag or boast. “Put it on my soul,” raps Mill atop “On My Soul” and its lovely, jazzish backing track. “Ain’t nothing that I can’t hold, and everything that I aim for. I’m getting everything that I aim for.”
The entire work – from its coming-of-age trap music single, “Blue Notes 2,” with fellow ATV enthusiast Lil Uzi Vert. to the short, sharp last-minute addition “Flamerz Flow” – feels like an actual album, all the way to its mod-Cubist cover art, crafted from an original work by Afrocentric painter Nina Chanel Abney.
“Donda” and “Certified Lover Boy” sold more than “Expensive Pain” will, but if focused fury and quirky humor in the guise of solid, tall-tale telling and unified production values were dollars and streams, Meek Mill would be a billionaire.