ain't this what they've been waiting for?

words: paul thompson

 

The Minnesota Vikings had been living a charmed life: their star rookie running back tore his ACL in week 4, and their starting quarterback––who was brought in in 2016 as an injury replacement himself––made it only one full game before tapping out for the year. Somehow that added up to 13-3. In their first playoff game, at home against New Orleans, they were down 24-23 with 10 seconds left and no timeouts when, on 3rd and 10, Case Keenum connected with Stefon Diggs near the right sideline, and Diggs had the presence of mind to turn upfield, past supine defensive backs, and run in the touchdown with time expiring. 29-24, “Minneapolis Miracle,” and etc. Now all that stood between the Vikings and becoming the first team to reach a Super Bowl in its home stadium was a quick trip to Philadelphia.

 

The Vikings probably never saw it coming. The Eagles, written off since Carson Wentz went down with his own torn ACL in week 14, gave up a touchdown on the Minnesota’s first drive, then stomped them, 38-7. It was over almost immediately. Philadelphia was so coolly, brutally dominant that film from the game probably is probably of little, if any tactical use for the Vikings this offseason.

 

In fact, the most compelling video footage from that Sunday in Philly comes from before the opening kickoff. It’s this video, reposted on Instagram by the Philadelphia rapper Meek Mill, of the Eagles warming up to his “Dreams and Nightmares (Intro),” a thunderous, hookless, four-minute tour-de-force from 2012. Little this postseason has been more satisfying than imagining the class of men who write and read moral panic columns about ungrateful NFL players––a class of men who undoubtedly imagine Jon Bon Jovi as the city’s adopted cultural icon––watching as tens of thousands of people at Lincoln Financial Field rap, at the top of their lungs, lines like “If you diss me in your raps I get your pussy ass stuck up.”

 

Meek’s song has become a de facto anthem for the team: special teams coach Dave Fipp played it during a meeting the day before the game; if you click the little white “next” arrow on Meek’s Instagram post, you flip from the pregame ritual to the postgame celebration, players and staff rapping it acapella, middle-aged coaches absolutely incensed that some unseen foe would assume the Aston Martin is a rental. This week, the Eagles announced that when they come out of the tunnel at the Super Bowl in Minneapolis, they’ll be coming out to “Dreams and Nightmares.”

 

It should be a triumphant time for Meek. Instead, he’s locked in a Pennsylvania prison, having been sentenced last November to two-to-four years for violating the terms of his probation. After the Super Bowl announcement, he issued a statement: “It really lifted my spirit to hear the team rally around my songs because that’s why I make music––to inspire others and bring people together. The Eagles have also motivated me with the way they’ve overcome tough situations and injuries to succeed this year.” The last sentence is touching in a way that reminds you sports can be a civic good––being locked in a cell while your career, family, and son are outside is far graver than being a 4.5-point underdog. But it’s also a strange and infuriating sentence when you consider that an ACL tear is a far more violent occurrence than anything that landed Meek behind bars.

 

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Meek Mill was born Robert Rihmeek Williams in 1987 in South Philly; when Meek was five, his father was murdered, and he moved with his mother and sister to the North side. His uncle, Grandmaster Nell, was one of the pioneering forces in Philadelphia hip-hop (here’s a Washington Post item from 1984 about a performance Nell gave on the National Mall). By the time he was a teenager, Meek was a popular battle and street rapper, glimpses of his work popping up on widely-bootlegged DVDs and in crevices of the early rap internet.

 

At the end of the 2000s, Meek was gaining momentum, in large part through his popular series of Flamers mixtapes. If you listen to these tapes today, you’ll hear Meek’s style was essentially fully-formed: a smart technician with a domineering, breathless delivery, he was a formalist midpoint between the negative space favored by the popular Atlanta rappers of the time and the Detroit rappers who would overstuff each line with excess syllables. He also had a unique ability to fold deep pain and careening happiness into nominally materialistic lines. Young Jeezy, who had become a star a half-decade as a sort of vacuum-sealed Tony Robbins, sounded like a life coach who was dispensing hard-earned wisdom; Meek sounded as if he was working things out in real time. He’d say stuff like “Can’t wear skinny jeans ‘cause my Glock won’t fit” and it would sound aspirational.

 

All of this translated into a short-lived association with the superstar rapper T.I., which was derailed in part by the 2008 drug and weapons convictions that would land him in jail and, eventually, on probation. But that was followed shortly by his biggest professional breakthrough, a deal with the Miami rapper Rick Ross’s Maybach Music imprint. The three albums Meek’s released through Maybach Music have each debuted in the top three on the Billboard charts, with 2015’s Dreams Worth More Than Money opening at No. 1 and quickly being certified Platinum.

 

By almost every available metric–and by anecdotal ones, like the passing car test or the enthusiasm with which his songs get rapped by concert attendees and clubgoers–Meek is one of the most popular rappers in the world. He’s an obvious influence on many of the young rappers who have become stars in his wake. But his music garners relatively little serious consideration from mainstream music outlets (or from prestige publications or white-skewing festival crowds), and most of the press he’d gotten in the couple of years before his latest probation violation centered on his relationship with the famous New York rapper Nicki Minaj, or on his beef with Drake, a former collaborator who Meek alleged was employing ghostwriters to pen his songs.

But “Dreams and Nightmares” has proved inescapable. It’s the intro for Meek’s 2012 album of the same name, and is almost certainly the most mythicized songs of its kind since Jay-Z’s famous Dynasty intro, from back in 2000 (even Drake is on record lavishing it with praise). At first it was an aesthetic achievement: the fury, the hurt, the dynamism Meek built into his vocals and his writing. When he was sentenced last November, fans assembled and rapped the song in the streets.

 

It’s also been copied endlessly; “First Day Out,” which became a breakout hit last year for a Detroit rapper named Tee Grizzley, follows its format almost down to the measure. Grizzley’s song was written and recorded, as its title suggests, immediately after he was released from prison. With Meek incarcerated, “Dreams and Nightmares” has taken on a terrifying new dimension: where it once traced Meek’s rise and underscored it with his fears of failure or derailment, the worst nightmares he rendered seem to have come true.

 

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Consider for a second the chasm between the black NFL players who chose to demonstrate during the national anthem this year and the fans and observers who have singled them out as enemies. The shouting matches over the protest has been interminable, but there’s a sort of cooling effect that comes with the 200th rehash on First Take: these vitriolic, nakedly racist screeds become window dressing, become expected, become normal. But consider the reality for these athletes. With what we’re learning about football (through research into CTE and other neurological diseases) and what we’ve always known (broken bones, ruptured tendons, torn ACLs), the fact that players are expected to sacrifice their near- and long-term health, without so much as guaranteed contracts, seems particularly heinous.

 

For years fans and columnists have rationalized this through the raw salaries players earn and through the fact that they’re playing a sport they love instead of punching in at a factory or whatever. That rationalization should become more difficult when Sean Hannity inserts himself.

 

As mentioned above, Meek’s current imprisonment is not the result of one rupture, but the long, attritive grind of the American justice system. This time, the judge in Meek’s case knocked him for a scuffle at the airport in St. Louis (assault charges were dropped) and because Meek drove a dirt bike “recklessly” during a video shoot. The judge in the case has become the focus of debate and investigation, for the strange punishments she’s doled out to Meek––including a mandated etiquette class––and allegedly demanding he record a cover of a Boyz II Men song, and that he leave his management company and sign with a personal friend of hers. (The judge has been investigated by the FBI.)

 

When the Eagles take the field to “Dreams and Nightmares,” it’s unclear whether Meek will be watching. His lawyer told Bleacher Report that while he hopes the prison, which is near Philadelphia, will allow inmates to watch the game, he might need to be on the phone with Meek giving updates every couple of minutes. But whether Meek is watching or not, more than 100 million people will be, and Philly––and the sport––will be better for it.