The first song on R.A.P. Music is a posse cut. Southern rap veterans Bun B and T.I. join Killer Mike on "Big Beast" — no, not to swap rhymes about their shared heritage — to salute the Old School: Bun tips his hat to Ice Cube ("Once Upon a time in the Projects, an O.G. saw a young Bun B as a prospect"); T.I. nods to Spice 1 ("AmeriKKKa's Nightmare, trap n--ga fantasy"); and Killer Mike summons the spirit of Boogie Down Productions ("Wa-da-da-dang, wa-da-da-da-da-dang/Listen to my Kimber .45 go BANG"). In many ways, "Big Beast" sets the tone for the rest of R.A.P. Music (aka Rebellious African People's Music). I'll get to that in a minute.
Consider that Bun and Tip are two rappers you least expect on an El-P beat. Actually, make that three, since the opening moment also illustrates the fact that Killer Mike is about to embark on a unique musical journey himself. So, the southern rap statesmen bid Mike adieu and exit the stage, signaling the beginning of something strange and beautiful.
Following "Big Beast," there's no other rapper in sight for an astonishing 27 minutes. This goes against everything we've learned about album making in 2012. Can you name three modern rap albums with zero guest emcees for a 27-minute stretch? You're supposed to have guests, preferably VIPs, rapping on every other track. Then again, you're also supposed to rap over certain beats. Never mind what you're supposed to do, Mike seems to be saying on R.A.P. Music, do what you wanna. But that's the obvious point, isn't it?
The not-so-obvious thing that makes R.A.P. Music such a refreshing album is that there's an overwhelming sense of solitude around it. Mike is basically alone here. Alone in a way that hearkens to post-NWA, AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted Ice Cube. He's isolated from everything out there, including whatever passes for standard rap fare these days. His comfort zone exists outside his comfort zone.
There are glimpses of partnerships here, but even those are based on shared obsessions. Twenty-seven minutes and seven straight solo cuts later, El-P shows up to point his middle finger north on "Butane (We Are Champions)."
More than their shared passion for raging against the machine, Mike and El also connect on their obsession with the Old School. That, as I mentioned earlier, is what drives R.A.P. Music.
On paper, it seems like a crazy idea. A union between two disparate sounds -- Brooklyn's El-P is famous for beats that sound like alien drones trying to communicate with earth, while Killer Mike's bread and butter is southern-fried production. But Mike isn't trying to adapt his flow to El-P's beats; El-P isn't trying to trace the dirty south sound. Their middle ground is a common ground that already existed before the two got together: vintage rap.
Big drums fly by like cannonballs. Keys hum and moan. Mike's voice cuts through like a bolo as he moves downfield, hurtling right along without stopping for more than a glance at the detritus in his wake. Mike’s lyrics and El-P's production were meant for each other.
R.A.P. Music is not a political-rap album, but it comes from a place of personal politics. It's more Me Against the World than It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. Mike's paranoia and distrust of law enforcement are both personal.
Here's Mike on "Don't Die": "I woke up this morning to a cop with a gun, who told me that he lookin' for a ni--a on the run."
Here's Mike on "Reagan": "They only love the rich, and how they loathe the poor/If I say any more they might be at my door/ Who the f-ck is that staring in my window/Doing that surveillance on Mr. Michael Render/I'm dropping off the grid before they pump the lead."
Here's Mike again on "Don't Die:" "Motherf--ker, my dad was a cop. You don't think I know a dirty ass cop when I see one?"
Here's Mike on the Bun and Tip-assisted "Big Beast": "Let me fall off, I'm taking all of y'all chains/All of y'all watches and all of y'all cars/Well, who you talking to? All of y'all stars/ All of y'all rappers and producers and such."
Even when he's surrounded by peers, he retains his sense of isolation.
This isn't about making a guy named Killer Mike sound like the last bastion of moral integrity in hip-hop. It's his passion that I find refreshing. We live in a world of "message rap," one where soi-disant conscious rappers parade their moral piffle and remain comfortable in detachment. Their goal, it seems, is to make us feel that we're part of Something Bigger -- something driven by substance. But, that approach allows cynics to remain guarded.
In Mike's case, there's only personal politics. The militant attitude is in his family DNA. Pops was a member of the Atlanta Police Department. Aunt was a member of the Black Panthers. That's how personal it is.
His gripes stem directly from his status as a young, black male in America. His politics comes from Something Personal, as opposed to Something Bigger, and that stuff makes you drop your guard. His goal is to make the rage in his head vivid, to translate it to music. And therein lies R.A.P. Music's biggest strength.
Mike ends the album on a positive note, with a love letter to hip-hop. "I've never really had a religious experience in a religious place," he says on the sprawling coda. "The closest I've ever come to seeing or feeling God is listening to rap music. Rap music is my religion." This is Killer Mike taking hip-hop back to its essence. It's a nod to the Ice Cubes, the BDPs, and the Spice-1s. It's a paean to their predecessors and their predecessors' predecessors. It's a beautiful moment of community. And let the church say "Amen."Top Tracks
- "Southern Fried"
- "William Burke Sherwood"
- "R.A.P. Music"