Killer Mike’s career led up to this 2012 album, his masterpiece. He had burst onto the scene back around the turn of the millennium, working with Outkast, earning a Grammy in 2002 for Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group for the single, ‘The Whole World.’ He also appeared on Jay-Z’s Blueprint 2 that year, amongst a whole host of other guest spots. This was followed with his début album, Monster, in 2003, very much within the OutKast world, with André 3000 producing a few of the joints, and with both he and BigBoi appearing. But then Big Boi got into a dispute with Sony Music, which meant that what was meant to be his 2005 follow-up, Ghetto Extraordinary got shelved, only to see the light of day in 2008 as a self-released mix-tape.
That was followed by several more albums, all showcasing Mike’s unique, loud, vicious, aggressive vocals, which have become his trademark. He is an imposing man, over six feet and he is a big man, so that voice, plus his appearance made him one of my favourite rappers.
But then, in 2012, he dropped R.A.P. Music, which was an acronym for ‘Rebellious African People,’ and he makes it clear on the devastating first track, ‘Big Beast’: ‘I don’t make dance music, this is R.A.P.!/ Opposite of the sucker shit they play on T.V.!’ This album was also the beginning of the collaboration between Mike and El-P, the Brooklyn-based rapper and producer who had burst on the scene back in the early 90s with Company Flow, and also the owner of Definitive Jux Records. El-P also dropped his own killer album that year, Cancer for the Cure, which sees Mike turn up on a few tracks.
I honestly don’t remember buying this album, but I do remember it catching my attention the first time I listened to it, on the métro in Montréal on my way downtown to catch the train out to the far western suburbs where I taught at the time. The very first track just kicks you in the head. Mike himself calls it some real ‘punch you in the face shit.’ Working with Bun-B and and Atlanta’s own T.I., ‘Big Beast’ is pure viciousness:
Hardcore G shit, homie, I don’t play around
Ain’t shit sweet bout the peach — this Atlanta, clown
Home of the dealers and the strippers and the clubs, though
Catch you coming out that Magic City with a snub, ho
Lurking in the club on tourist motherfuckers
Welcome to Atlanta, up your jewelry, motherfucker!
These monkey niggas looking for some Luda and Jermaine
And all that nigga found was a Ruger and some pain
Pow, motherfucker, pow! Come up off the chain (ay, ay)
Pow, motherfucker, pow! One off in the brain (ay, ay)
We some money-hungry wolves, and we down to eat the rich
Your bodyguard ain’t shit, we strip him like a stripper bitch
These real-ass killers move in silence with violence
The minute it set off, we the motherfucking wildest
How you from Atlanta they ain’t never speak upon
Where everybody got a sack of dope and a gun.
Bun-B and T.I.’s verses are just as vicious. I was stunned into my seat with this blasting into my ears. Just stunned. Now, I had been digging on hip hop since I was a kid, I think I was 10 or 11 the first time I heard LL Cool J and Run-DMC, and I had heard a whole shit tonne of hard core shit, from NWA to Public Enemy to the underground and back. But this, man, this was just exactly what Mike said it was. For 3.55, Mike, Bun, T, Trouble, and El have you in a headlock and they just take turns whaling on you. I hadn’t heard anything quite like this before. And even as hardcore as Bun and T are, even as they deliver flawless rhymes, it’s Mike who dominates this show, his hyper-as-fuck style just overwhelms the older, more established rappers.
And this set the tone for one of the classics of hip hop history. In a lot of ways, Killer Mike moved from a kind of obscurity and being Atlanta-based into something a bit more mainstream with his album, but especially with Run the Jewels, with El-P, and it is the collaboration between the two of them that set this album apart. Mike is a vicious rapper, he’s got ridiculous flow, but El-P is probably one of the most under-rated producers out there. I was listening to the brand new RTJ album the other day, and I was just stunned at how Mike’s rhymes, in particular, are just made for the music and the beats that El-P creates around them. And that led me back to R.A.P. Music, where that partnership began.
‘Untitled’ is the second track, and begins with a beat that only El-P could’ve created, full of the boom bap, but with these synth flourishes that both promise a great track, but deeply ominous. And here Mike gives prop to the mothers, the women, the ones who made him who is he, ruminating on mortality, immortality, the ability to change, and the redemptive powers of the Lord, and he draws on Southern hip hop history, placing himself firmly in that tradition. He then looks out along the wider spread of hip hop history:
And I keep a blunt and a Bible and a gun on me
Why? Cause I’m country-bred
Actually, I’m south-er-ern
Something like my brethren
The legendary Andre 3K, Cee Lo, Goodie, and some other men
You should pay some homage, it’s an honor this
This is not a fiction that is sold by conglomerates
This is Soul of Black Folks mixed with Donald Goines shit
Better said, Robert Beck, esoteric I could get
This is John Gotti painting pictures like Dali
This is Basquiat with a passion like Pac
In a body like Biggie, telling stories like Ricky
If a rapper was to spar, please tell him better kick it
You with me?
He also lays out his distrust of power, the government, Democrat, Republican, and this is a theme he will come back to.
‘Southern Fried’ also begins with what could only be an El-P joint, and then the beat kicks in and Mike arrives to grab the mic, which is, on the one hand, a standard hip hop track, recalling life on the streets, and yet, in his hyperkinetic vocal flow, Mike takes this all to a new level.
‘JoJo’s Chillin’ is one of the greatest tracks on the album, with El supplying an old school boom bap beat, pounding bass and snare, as Mike drops a rhyme about an ATL gangta, JoJo whose run himself into a little trouble in his hometown and needs to skip up to NYC for a bit until shit cools down. As we follow JoJo on his ride from home to the airport to his flight to touchdown in NYC and out to his ride to Astoria, Queens, we can’t tell if he’s out of his mind from the coke, or what, as he imagines Ghostface Killah issuing him instructions as to what to do when he gets to the Big Apple.
And this segues into the moral core of the album, ‘Reagan.’ Recalling the Reagan Administration’s alleged War on Drugs, Mike looks at it from the perspective of the inner city of Atlanta. Using samples of Reagan first deny and than admit his guilt in the Iran-Contra Affair (how that did not get him impeached still just boggles the mind), he ponders the effects of Reagan’s corruption and the flow of drugs onto the streets, as well as police brutality. In 2012, Mike told Spin that people were trying to pin him as a political rapper, and he noted that he comments on society. At any rate, his dislike of Reagan was real, going so far as to celebrate with a BBQ when Reagan died. It is worth noting the lyrics to this track, as delivered by Mike, the inherent power of the words become overwhelming:
The ballot or the bullet, some freedom or some bullshit
Will we ever do it big, or just keep settlin’ for li’l shit?
We brag on having bread, but none of us are bakers
We all talk having greens, but none of us own acres
If none of us own acres, and none of us grow wheat
Then who will feed our people when our people need to eat?
So it seems our people starve from lack of understanding
Cause all we seem to give them is some ballin’ and some dancin’
And some talkin’ about our car and imaginary mansions
We should be indicted for bullshit we inciting
Handin’ children death and pretendin’ it’s excitin’
We are advertisements for agony and pain
We exploit the youth; we tell them to join a gang
We tell them dope stories, introduce them to the game
Just like Oliver North introduced us to cocaine
In the 80’s when the bricks came on military planes.
The end of the Reagan Era, I’m like ‘leven, twelve, or
Old enough to understand that shit’d changed forever
They declared the war on drugs, like a war on terror
But what it really did was let the police terrorize whoever
But mostly black boys, but they would call us “niggers”
And lay us on our belly, while they fingers on they triggers
They boots was on our head, they dogs was on our crotches
And they would beat us up if we had diamonds on our watches
And they would take our drugs and moneys, as they pick our pockets
I guess that that’s the privilege of policin’ for some profits
But thanks to Reaganomics, prison turned to profits
‘Cause free labor’s the cornerstone of US economics
‘Cause slavery was abolished, unless you are in prison
You think I am bullshittin’, then read the 13th Amendment
Involuntary servitude and slavery it prohibits
That’s why they givin’ drug offenders time in double digits.
Ronald Reagan was a 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
If you don’t believe the theory, then argue with this logic
Why did Reagan and Obama both go after Qaddafi?
We invaded sovereign soil, going after oil
Taking countries is a hobby paid for by the oil lobby
Same as in Iraq and Afghanistan
And Ahmadinejad say they coming for Iran
They only love the rich, and how they loathe the poor
If I say any more they might be at my door
(Shh..) Who the fuck is that staring in my window?
Doing that surveillance on Mr. Michael Render
I’m dropping off the grid before they pump the lead
I leave you with four words: I’m glad Reagan dead.
Note, also, his indictment of rappers for their role in all of this, too.
That flows into ‘Don’t Die,’ which begins with a sample of comedian Dick Gregory noting the racism inherent in policing in the United States. And then Mike offers us a fable of a rapper coming up against the crookendess of the police, being forced to fire his way out and how he gets out of it. This is a long-standing rap tradition, dating back to Boogie Down Productions and ‘100 Guns.’ But there is more to this track than just the outlaw fantasy, as Mike picks up on Gregory’s rant to start the song, and the role of the police in enforcing African American inequality and the racism that both produces that and it produces.
‘Anywhere But Here’ is another joint that could only have been created by El-P, and then bursts into this pounding bass and drum track and a synth rap as Mike notes his need to get the fuck outta Dodge, with Emily Panic delivering the chorus. As he drives through NYC in bad weather, he takes a look at the inherent corruption of the city, his delivery, the way he draws out the last syllable of each word recalling Chuck D on ‘Pollywanna’:
Moving through New York City in a black seven fifty
Like Batman movin through Gotham
Dodging pot holes as I gently move through Harlem with my wheels on slalom
Pain in my eyes as I’m passing the place
Where they found Sean Bell and they shot him (Queens)
Forty one times, he committed no crime
But I guess life ain’t Times Square
But in the city that’s gritty where the bottom lives shitty
And the mayor’s a billionaire
You learn Manhattan keep on making it
And Brooklyn, keep on taking it
Cause life just ain’t that fair
For the kids in the park, watching out for the Narcs
Blowing Sour Diesel in the air
Tryin’ to flip them a pack, stack up a couple racks
And make it the hell outta here… (New York)
The second verse finds him back in the ATL, where he notes that the system is so corrupt it just doesn’t matter, as Atlanta has the same problems NYC does, despite the fact it’s a city with an African American majority and an African American mayor, and yet, the police still kill innocent black people with impunity.
‘Willie Burke Sherwood’ is his grandfather’s name, and this is Mike’s autobiography, how he wanted to avoid the streets, how his grandparents helped raise him because his parents were still kids when they had him back in 1975, and how he fell in love with hip hop:
Used to walk around with a head full of naps
Chubby young kid with a head full of raps
Doing what he can, just trying to adapt
Jumped to the block off of grandma’s lap
Jumped to the block, so did every emcee
But gotta tell the truth, yeah, the block wasn’t me
Lookin’ for adventure, but the block was not
The block was real, Woo got killed
Half a year later, Big Spank got killed
And I got robbed, and Ronnie got shot
And I bought my first tape by 2Pac
And I got hard, cause I was smart
I knew that the weak and the meek couldn’t make it in the street
Had to assert yourself to survive
So I convinced myself it was better for me
To be Jack in The Lord of the Flies
It’s a book I read, books I read
Cause I’m addicted to literature
As a young boy rollin’ ’round with the clique
Cause of that I was insecure
I was insecure cause I realized
Ain’t no room for the civilized
When the wild men rumble in the jungle
And that’s why Simon and Piggy died
Ralph survives, but he lives changed
Nothin’s the same, shit’ll drive a man out his brain
Drive a young man insane
My cousin Jimmy had a breakdown he ain’t never been the same
And he never will be again
If I could fix his brain
Take back the crack in his mind
Give it all back, you can have the racks and fame
I’d give it all back in exchange.
There is a wistful feel to the beat, which still hits you in the head, but I guess that’s the nature of our nostalgia and when we look back on our lives.
The album ends with ‘R.A.P. Music,’ which sees Mike exploring his relationship with God and religion, and how much he loves hip hop, which was his exit from the streets, and brought him to a larger audience and gave him the platform to speak his mind. He has, of course, since become a commentator on the ills of society, racism, and injustice regularly appearing in the media. The hook of the track always hits me:
This is jazz, this is funk, this is soul, this is gospel
This is sanctified sick; this is player Pentecostal
This is church; front pew, amen, pulpit
What my people needin’? The opposite of bullshit
This is jazz, this is funk, this is soul, this is gospel
This is sanctified sick; this is player Pentecostal
This is church; front pew, amen, pulpit
What my people needin’? The opposite of bullshit.
This was Killer Mike’s last solo album, just as Cancer for the Cure was El-P’s last solo album. The following year, 2013, Mike and El-P reappeared as Run the Jewels, dropping their first album, for free, that year. RTJ has brought Mike and El greater fame than they had ever found on their own, giving these two ageing Gen X rappers (both Mike and El are 45 this year) a wider platform, which they have used to take on police violence, racism, and corruption that they see around them. And the genius of their collaboration has become increasingly clear, culminating in this year’s stunning RTJ4. But that collaboration was begun with this album.
R.A.P. Music remains, as far as I’m concerned, one of the greatest albums ever made. It has been on constant rotation around here since 2012. I probably listen to it on average ever two weeks, sometimes more.