“Got signed, got serious about the craft of raw rhyme and I got mine,” Killer Mike rapped on Outkast’s “Flip Flop Rock” back in 2003, and since being a hungry upstart frequently featured on Outkast tracks, he’s carved out his own niche; armed with a pulverizing, percussive flow and an uncompromising disposition, Mike’s been steadily releasing some of the purest hip-hop of the past decade.
R.A.P. Music, an El-P produced slab of political, socially-conscious hip-hop that harkens back to the militant glory days of Ice Cube and Public Enemy, is Killer Mike’s opus. He hasn’t been shy about that fact, spending the months leading up to the album’s release confidently promising a classic, but then again, why should he? After years spent honing his craft – “the epitome of raw rhyme”, as he told us back in 2003 – R.A.P. Music is the culmination of Killer Mike’s career to date. It’s an intoxicating, raw, exposed-nerve of an album, lyrically and sonically, and Mike has every right to be proud of it.
A lot of the album’s success is due to the newly-blazed partnership between Mike and producer El-P; though rapper and producer are potent artists on their own terms, they prove pointed foils for one another here. El-P’s experimental, synth-heavy style is evident here, but where his self-produced albums can be challenging, melodically opaque affairs, there’s an exciting minimalism to his work on R.A.P. Music; burbling synths crest the horizon of El-P’s trunk-rattling percussion, while stray scratches lend a 1991 ambiance to the whole affair. Mike, meanwhile, is the flashier star player; while he spends much of R.A.P. Music pontificating on social ills (the stunning “Reagan” traces any number of sociopolitical issues back to Ronald, while “Don’t Die” provides a fairly even-handed counterpoint to the familiar “fuck the police” screed, acknowledging that good cops exist, and don’t deserve to be lumped in with the crooks that target Mike for being an intelligent, outspoken black musician), he’s got a knack for simply showing off. Witness “Go!”, two thrilling minutes of Mike’s ever-morphing rat-a-tat flow, a track that exists strictly so the emcee can flex a bit. It functions as Killer Mike’s Flow, Exhibit A – he postulates that mere mic skills alone would make his tracks hot, even if he wasn’t saying anything of substance. It’s hard to ignore the evidence.
Ditto opening salvo “Big Beast” – on paper, it plays like another city-repping, self-serving brag-rap track, but in reality, it’s a scorcher, Mike’s sweaty, dynamic flow demolishing all rappers in his path. (T.I. and Bun B are on hand for some solid 16s here, but Mike devours them effortlessly; his flow is an instrument to itself, a breathless marvel of astonishing versatility and force.) Mike gets a lot of mileage out of his vivid storytelling abilities on “Jojo’s Chillin” and “Don’t Die”; elsewhere, ghostly choruses straight out of a latter-day Roots track float up from the minor-key either on “Untitled” and “Ghetto Gospel”.
It all synthesizes to form a monolithic, genre-defining release; from top to bottom, R.A.P. Music is a stunner, as musically vivid and emotionally rousing as any hip-hop release in the past decade. On the title track, Killer Mike stresses that his music is “the opposite of bullshit”; if one of the most crucial traits of any self-respecting emcee is the ability to back up one’s own bluster, the Killer Mike of R.A.P. Music is at the top of his game.