The defiant centerpiece of Meek Mill’s new Championships album is “What’s Free,” a bristling collaboration with Jay-Z and Rick Ross. Mill slyly subverts the National Anthem, quoting lines from Francis Scott Key even as he suggests that, for many non-white Americans, the “land of the free” is anything but: “Locked down in my cell, shackled from ankle to feet.” And Jay-Z delivers a 44-bar verse that ties together the Three-Fifths Compromise, the importance of black-owned business, white gentrification and the Billboard charts on its way to an assertion of indomitability: “They gon’ have to kill me, Grandmama, I’m not they slave.”
Then there’s Ross, who sounds like he’s rapping on a different song. He covers his usual topics — amassing wealth, his prowess in the drug trade — before pivoting to blast an unnamed rapper, who sounds a lot like Tekashi 6ix9ine: “Screaming ‘gang gang,’ now you wanna rap / Racketeering charges caught him on a tap / Lookin’ for a bond, lawyers wanna tax / Purple hair got them faggots on your back.”
The use of the homophobic slur is a song-spoiling moment, especially jarring since Jay-Z, whose verse appears minutes later, has been a vocal supporter of LGBTQ rights since releasing 4:44 in 2017. That album contained “Smile,” which revealed that Jay-Z’s mom is a lesbian. The same man who once rapped, “‘Cause faggots hate when you gettin’ money like athletes,” changed his tune: “Cried tears of joy when you fell in love / Don’t matter to me if it’s a him or her / I just wanna see you smile through all the hate.”
“Smile” was hailed as a watershed moment for hip-hop, which has long struggled with homophobic rhetoric. When Gloria Carter was honored at the GLAAD Awards in May, Good Morning America‘s Robin Roberts said, “this mother look[ed] into her child’s eyes, and in this case, that child is embraced and exalted by a community that has traditionally not been accepting of LGBTQ people. She [said], ‘Son, this is me’ … If that doesn’t accelerate acceptance, what does?”
And when Jay-Z was a guest on David Letterman’s Netflix show My Next Guest Needs No Introduction, he spoke at length about the tearful conversation with his mother that led to “Smile.” “Imagine having to live your life as someone else and you think you’re protecting your kids,” Jay-Z told Letterman. “It’s not like now, when everyone’s more accepting of everyone’s lifestyle. There are still people out there living in a different time, but we look at those people as, you’re living in a different time.”
One of those people, it seems, is Ross. It’s unclear if Jay-Z knew the exact content of Ross’ verse before the song came out. Reps for both rappers did not respond to requests for comment.
Like many tracks in modern pop, “What’s Free” took a winding path from inception to a streaming service near you. It started with a bold plan: Sample the beat from a Notorious B.I.G. classic, “What’s Beef.” “My guy Clemm Rishad had the crazy idea to flip that,” Miami-based producer Streetrunner says. “I wasn’t sure if Meek was going to like this, but it was an idea only for Meek.”
But pulling from “What’s Beef” proved to be technically challenging. “I tried to find Biggie’s instrumental and flip the front of the record, but there was nowhere I can find the version without Puff or Biggie ad-libbing in the front,” Streetrunner explains. “So I tried to go to the original sample that Biggie flipped it from [Richard Evans’ cover of ‘Close to You’]. I was listening like, ‘How they fuck did they make ‘What’s Beef’ from this? It don’t sound even near the same.”
Working with Tarik Azzouz — a past collaborator from Mill’s 2016 DC4 tape — Streetrunner had to recreate the “What’s Beef” beat from the ground up. “To top it off, I added little record crackles to give that vintage texture,” Streetrunner says. “We really made it sound like that eerie 1996-Bad-Boy-Biggie vibe. Then when the drums come in, it sounds so Meek Mill-ish for him to spaz and black out on.” (Later, the producer also had to re-work the percussion pattern because Mill’s label wasn’t willing or able to clear the rim-shots sampled from Al Green’s “I’m So Glad You’re Mine.”)
Streetrunner was present during Mill’s first studio session after he got out of jail in April. “That was legit the first beat I played [for him],” the producer says. “He went crazy for it. He was playing the instrumental for everyone. A week in, Ross came through to holler at Meek. I think that’s when Meek pressed play on ‘What’s Free,’ and on the spot Ross recorded his verse. Then Ross took the record to his crib and recorded another five verses. For a little bit it was going to go towards Ross’ album.” The final verse was likely written and recorded recently; it refers to 6ix9ine’s racketeering arrest, which took place less than two weeks ago.
But at some point, according to Streetrunner, “Jay-Z heard the record and was like, ‘We got to use this for Meek’s album.’” (Meek Mill is managed by Jay-Z’s Roc Nation.)
Still, even this earlier this month Streetrunner and Azzouz weren’t clear where “What’s Free” was going to end up. “This was so wishy-washy if it was going to be on the [Meek Mill] album or go towards Ross’ album — I had no fucking clue;” Streetrunner says. This week, he called a contact at Roc Nation and was told that “What’s Free” would be on Meek Mill’s album with a verse from Jay-Z.
“Ross took the record to his crib and recorded another five verses. For a little bit it was going to go towards Ross’ album.”
Both producers were wildly impressed with Jay-Z’s contribution to “What’s Free” when Championships finally came out. “He really ripped it down,” Azzouz says. “He came on a 4:44 vibe on this verse: Giving game on some grown-man shit, schooling a little.”
Ross’ verse is notably not on “a 4:44 vibe.” Azzouz acknowledges that the rapper’s use of the word “faggot” “is definitely gonna cause a lot of controversy.” “But to me,” he adds, “being a faggot just means you’re wack.” This echoes the language of rappers like Eminem, who likened his use of the same word to “calling someone a bitch or a punk or asshole” in a 2013 Rolling Stone interview.
“Hip-hop has never had to be politically correct,” Streetrunner adds. “If that’s what he’s feeling, that’s what he’s feeling. In his daily life, if he wants to be politically correct, that’s on him. In rap, spit them bars.”
Of course, Ross is not the only rapper to use homophobic language recently. Migos appeared to condemn ILoveMakonnen for coming out in a 2017 Rolling Stone interview; they later issued an apology. Eminem, who has been criticized for using homophobic language since he first became famous two decades ago, attacked Tyler, the Creator as a “faggot” on “Fall” from his September release Kamikaze, though the word was mostly bleeped out on the album. Eminem later said “in my quest to hurt [Tyler], I realized that I was hurting a lot of other people by saying it,” though he did not apologize.
So the problem of homophobia in hip-hop is not limited to Ross. And Jay-Z cannot be held responsible for the actions of other rappers. Still, Ross’ words tarnish what would otherwise be an impressive song.
Many listeners don’t appear to care. “We’re Number One on the iTunes store,” Streetrunner says. “Everything was sounding so much the same. Hopefully some of the youth coming up that be trying to sing on autotune hear this and are like, ‘Yo, I need to spit some bars.’”