When news broke that Killer Mike and El-P were making an album together the rap community was elated, albeit slightly confused. Killer Mike (aka Michael Render) has been lurking around some of the best southern rap projects of the last decade. He made his debut on an OutKast song (“Snappin and Trappin”) and has since guested on a litany of tracks (most famously Bone Crusher’s anthem “Never Scared”) and dropped 5 well respected LP’s. On the other hand, we have El-P, the enigmatic east-coast villain, who is one of the most forward thinking producers/MCs in hip-hop history. The two men represent different strands of a genre wherein artists are all too often hesitant to abandon what they consider the “real” approach to the music. Thankfully, Mike and Jaime are not this kind of artist. For them it is about questioning the genre’s boundaries, pouring this unlabeled chemical into that one, and watching shit explode.
The result of these experiments, R.A.P. Music, is a living, breathing monster. Mike’s rapping has never been better. His southern growl is raw, but not unheard of. What makes him stand out is his complex rhyme structures, well-employed references, and socially conscientious thought processes. With El-P handling the production Mike seems to have let himself be as creative as he wants to be. In turn, El-Producto held up his end of the bargain and delivered his cosmic, bomb-squad beats with a hint of southern soul. It is a near perfectly produced album (not unlike his work with Cannibal Ox). Every track is a banger and while it is easy to hear El-P’s hand in the work it is also clear that he built the project from the ground up with Mike’s lyrical style in mind. As Mike attacks the beat El-P’s creations push right back.
The album opens with Mike’s menacing manifesto: “hardcore G-Shit/ homie I don’t play around/ ain’t shit sweet bout the peach/ this Atlanta clown.” “Big Beast”, which features southern legends Bun B and T.I., is a punch to the chest. El-P unloads some rapid fire drums that sound straight out of AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted (T.I drops the reference just to make sure we notice). Bun B of course delivers a rock solid verse (the “being trill is an onomatopoeia” line would have been enough for me) and Mike reminds us that all three MC’s hail from the city “where everybody got a sack of dope and a gun.” This is the most classically southern song on the album. It contains big guest spots, extols the virtues of the street, and establishes the artists’ ego.
As enjoyable as “Big Beast” is, I was hoping to see R.A.P. Music explore something a little more offbeat. Right on cue, the next track, “Untitled”, is a twisted, head-snapping masterpiece. Mike notes that “you are witnessing elegance/ in the form of a black elephant/ smoking white rhino on terraces.” Over a grinding synth and bongos (genius) he then goes on to discuss God’s hand in the world’s ills. “It takes a women’s womb to make a christ or dali lama/ the world might take that child and turn the child into a monster/ the lord will take a monster and fashion him a saint/ I present you Malcom X for those who sayin that he caint/ sayin that he won’t/ when I know he will/ you usually don’t know it’s you until your getting killed.” All that said with a cadence worthy of the great Andre 3000. And just for good measure, right at the end of the track Mike drops the throwaway line: “I believe God has sustained me with rap/ so I take a burning bush and throw it in a swisher wrap.”
From there on the album is a mixture of grimy, synth-laden anthems and playful southern gems. “Southern Fried” blends the two artist’s backgrounds seamlessly, as the verse is a vintage El-P beat while the chorus leans more toward the Goodie Mob side of the spectrum. The albums most laid back number, “JoJo’s Chillin”, is evidence that Mike is an excellent story rapper and probably a hilarious guy to hang out with. Essentially, JoJo has to flee to New York so he embarks on a journey that finds him inadvertently sneaking weed onto the flight, banging the stewardess in the bathroom while she racks lines (which later gets her bum-rushed by the cops), and eventually making it to NY, safe and sound. This humorous tone is short-lived, however, as the next track, “Reagan”, rips into American politics as well as the state of rap music. In between sound clips from the Iran-Contra affair Mike argues that “it seems our people starve from lack of understanding/ cause all we seem to give them is some ballin and some dancin/ talkin about our car and imaginary mansions/ we should be indicted for bullshitin we incitin.” You shouldn’t listen to this album expecting self-critical lyricism (stick to K.R.I.T for that) but its brief appearance is nonetheless refreshing.
After the stellar run of songs from “Ghetto Gospel” through “Willie Burke Sherwood” R.A.P. Music comes to its eponymous track. A gripping, stuttering drum beat gives way to an epic wall of synths and Mike’s voice, saying that “the closest [he has] ever come to seeing or feeling god is listening to rap music.” It sounds cheesy but it is undoubtedly sincere. Mike has put his life into his music and this record is the most powerful result of that effort. With the help of El-P’s steady hand Killer Mike has created an important album for rap. It is an album that understands where it comes from but it is simultaneously standing on the edge of a cliff, screaming into the wind.