Rating: 8.5 / 10
To some, one-time Outkast protégé Killer Mike may have seemed to lose his way since emerging on the scene as that fantastic rapper who would show up on his fellow ATLiens eclectic records, chewing up the lush, pop scenery with his vicious rhymes. Not that his skills as an MC have ever been called into question, of course.
Mike’s Southern drawl has always been charismatic; sometimes hard, sometimes laidback, and always head-bobbingly infectious. But after three lengthy installments to his Pledge series – which saw him diversify with everything from revolutionary anthems to masculine, Waka-esque cuts to soul-sampling, sex anthems – Mike spent the last few years making great music and gaining the attention of media giants such as Rolling Stone, but the full appreciation (and possibly direction) hasn’t been there. Something had to change.
Help arrives from an unlikely source in producer and Definitive Jux entrepreneur, El-P. An underground king in NYC for his shadowy synths and mauling drum loops – best summarized by his own claustrophobic solo records – El Producto takes the role of sole producer on R.A.P. Music (an acronym for Rebellious African People, by the way), reinvigorating Killer Mike with his own brand of blazing Hip-Hop instrumentation. But to call this a record of Killer Mike’s neck-snapping country rhymes atop of El-P’s battering East Coast beats would be an over-simplification. Instead, both artists work in tandem, borrowing some of the mechanics from each other’s sound and fitting them to their own machine. Think Ice Cube and The Bomb Squad on AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, a record that fused the sound of both coasts, and you’re most of the way there.
“Southern Fried”, for example, is an old-fashioned, greasy Atlanta jam mixed with El-P’s steely New York idiosyncrasies. Put it all together, and you’ve got a concoction reminiscent of Outkast’s classic Hip-Hop mash-up “BOB”. “Welcome to this country-fide, bonafide/And my flow is sweet as a potato pie,” raps Mike on “Southern Fried”, but your typical country sh*t, R.A.P. Music ain’t.
The occasional ATL shout-out aside, lyrically this may be Mike’s toughest album to date. He’s always liked a political jam, but here religion, social injustice, and police brutality all come in to focus. “Don’t Die” is a throwback to Death Certificate-era Cube with its vivid narration depicting crooked crops, while the ferocious “Reagan” is scathing attack on the former President’s administration, tarring every presidency since with the same brush:
“Ronald Reagan was an actor, Not at all a factor/
Just an employee of the country’s real masters/
Just like the Bushes, Clinton and Obama/
Just another talking head telling lies on teleprompters”
It’s the kind of rebellious rap that was once so prominent in the genre, marginalized over the years by noughties economic prosperity and Hip-Hop’s increased commercialism. Mike, however, is not afraid to point his crosshairs at those he deems worthy of a lyrical attack.
But it took El-P’s influence to ignite that fire. At 12 tracks, R.A.P. Music is more of an intense sprint than a marathon. There’s not a skit in sight; no slow jams or radio songs. El-P simply won’t allow it. “This album was created entirely by Jamie and Mike,” says Killer to open “JoJo’s Chillin”, acknowledging El-P’s considerable contribution. Mike stretches Jamie. Jamie focuses Mike.
It’s R.A.P. Music, and it’s beautiful.