Killer Mike contains multitudes. His latest album, the El-P-produced mini-opus R.A.P. Music, is the sound of all those multitudes cohering into a single brilliant point without losing any of the complications and contradictions that make Mike such a compelling and necessary figure. Fiercely political but rarely partisan, eternally brooding but hopeful, aggressively intelligent but always fun, the 37-year-old Atlanta MC is hard to pin down but easy to like, and his new album finds him exploring all the facets of his rich and complicated persona over some of the most aggressive and speaker-shaking beats in modern hip-hop. Back in 2001 Mike made a guest appearance on Outkast’s “The Whole World” and said, “My words are diamonds dug out a mine/Spit ‘em, polish, look how they shine.” On R.A.P. Music Killer Mike stacks his finest diamonds sky high and lets El-P throw firecrackers at them.
Though the pairing of a Southern classicist like Mike with a Brooklyn noise-rap innovator like El-P may appear incongruous or like some creepy fan-fic scenario, it actually ends up being a perfect, even serendipitous, fit. According to a recent AlterNet interview with Mike, the connection came about after a friend of Mike’s who works for Adult Swim (the network’s label, Williams Street, released R.A.P. Music, and Mike has done work as voice actor for the channel) suggested the pair should collaborate on a few tracks. “It’s almost, to be totally corny, it was an Avatar moment,” says Mike. “He and I just plugged in together, and the vibe was there without question. It was just pure instinct.”
That sense of pure instinct is felt from the first stabbing beats of the album’s opening banger, “Big Beast,” which finds Mike yelling, “Pow, motherfucker, pow!” within the first verse and only grows with intensity as Bun B and T.I. make quick guest appearances, signaling this is not the kids’ table. As if the “Pow!” wasn’t warning enough, El-P soon drops some serious Rick Rubin drums, rattling you all the way back to the late ’80s; it will make you wanna throw shit or at least watch a Rocky training montage. The song builds toward a fiery conclusion with Mike laying out an underlying ethos for the album: “I don’t make dance music, this is R.A.P/Opposite of the sucker shit they play on TV.”
He’s right that they don’t play music like this on TV, but such a blatantly regressive statement undercuts how contemporary and of the moment the album feels. Instead of being a throwback record or a nostalgia-fest, R.A.P. Music feels like a singular and specific corrective to both hip-hop’s huckster trend-chasing leeches and conservative fans who think hip-hop died a couple moths after It Takes A Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back dropped. If there’s a broader argument being made here it’s that the world of rap is limitless and amorphous, which is something that many of Mike’s younger peers—many of them raised exclusively by the internet—would agree with. Despite the sparseness of some of El-P’s menacing beats, this album is a labyrinth to get lost in, and Mike is your hectoring mentor and gregarious guide.
The first thing you notice about Mike’s voice is that it’s deep and startling, always ready to snap back like a rubber band. Even when trying to sound relaxed and laid-back, the possibility of another “Pow!” lurks in between each pause. “Go!” is a dizzying lyrical exercise in joyful nonsense, complete with wild scratching and the obligatory Godzilla comparison. “Southern Fried” finds Mike at his most playful, talking food, money woes and his wife over a sweaty funk crawl. The beat on “Don’t Die” makes you want to get one of those Donkey Kong hammers and start smashing little barrels and rescue princesses from castles. After painting a stark mini-portrait of police brutality, Mike pulls back the camera to look at our whole economy: “And I don’t give a fuck about a party in the Hamptons/And I don’t give a fuck about a motherfucking Forbes list/As far as I’m concerned that’s a motherfucking whore’s list.”
Indignation fuels the album, and rightfully so. Trayvon Martin, the flailing economy, wars overseas, racial injustice, the failures of the Obama administration—there’s a lot to be angry about in this world, and Mike doesn’t shy away from these issues, but at the same time he’s smart enough to both look at the larger causes of the problems and identify his own faults. Like many great albums, R.A.P. Music creates its own context both musically and historically. On the chilling stand-out “Reagan” Mike examines the long, dark legacy of President Ronald Reagan and the effects his policies have had on black culture. At the same time, he’s willing to acknowledge that Reagan himself was just part of a much larger political system that often feels engineered to hold down those without power. Erudite and nuanced, while still somehow being catchy as hell, the song is the terrifying heart of the album, the flipside of Mike’s often hopeful and inspiring spirituality.
Many fans, critics and Mike himself have already compared R.A.P. Music to Ice Cube’s AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, which saw the former N.W.A. rapper team up with the Bomb Squad for a whole album, and while that’s certainly a worthwhile comparison, it also feels like one of those wonderful and bizarre ’70s rock albums where an icon would team up with another icon. Take your pick: El-P is David Bowie and Killer Mike is Lou Reed and this is Transformer. Or Killer Mike is Iggy Pop and this is The Idiot. There’s a slightly odd mini-trend in hip-hop for critics to perhaps over-celebrate albums where an artist teams up with a producer and an MC crafts a more “cohesive” collection—think Madvillainy or the first few Clipse albums or even Juicy J’s recent run of Lex Luger-produced mixtapes—as if the varied and slightly messy grab-what-works approach of many rap albums wasn’t already a built-in part of hip-hop’s appeal. But R.A.P. Music is deserving of all the praise being heaped upon it. Like Big Boi’s Sir Lucious Left Foot or DJ Quik’s Book Of David, this is an argument for the idea that rappers can and will grow old with grace, reinvigorating and reinventing the styles they came up with. It’s a booming triumph.