The rapper’s new album, Championships, topped the US chart – but after a controversial jail term, he remains haunted by a US legal system he is now trying to change

The first time Meek Mill took part in a rap battle, he left in tears. “The guy battling me was 16 years old, and I was 13 or 14 – he was more advanced than me,” the 31-year-old recalls. “I lost by a long shot, but it gave me ambition. I told everybody before I left: ‘One day, you all will be playing my music.’” Hours before we sit down to chat in a ritzy Manhattan restaurant, the rapper’s fourth proper studio album, Championships, goes into the US charts at No 1. It is his second chart-topping record, after Dreams Worth More Than Money in 2015.

As he sips camomile tea with a side order of raw ginger, Meek – real name Robert Rihmeek Williams – carefully unlocks a giant, diamond-studded chain, and places it on the table with the care of Indiana Jones swapping idols in Raiders of the Lost Ark. “I’m sick as hell right now,” he croaks between sips. His whirlwind schedule doesn’t allow for much rest; he’ll be whisked across town to tape an appearance on The Daily Show after our conversation and has just come from the set of a film about urban dirt-bike riders, 12 O’Clock Boys. It’s his acting debut, portraying a character who “[reflects] on myself – someone who’s been in prison and comes home and tries to change his life”.

Related: Meek Mill: Championships review – cinematic tracks from emancipated rapper

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