[Williams Street; 2012]
To open the final track on “R.A.P. Music,” Killer Mike lays out his mission statement: “I’ve never had a religious experience in a religious place. The closest I’ve ever come to seeing or feeling God is listening to rap music. Rap music is my religion.” The song goes on to pay tribute to the history and power of hip-hop, and while it makes for an epic finish, it could easily serve as a prologue to an album that is from start to finish a sermon on how rap music could (and should) be an influential force, enlightening the listener rather than promoting ones self. Mike follows this statement with a flow that reveals the care put into each and every word he spouts: “What I say might save a life / what I speak might save a street.”
Over his ten-year career that began via collaborations with Outkast, Killer Mike has always approached his lyrics with a vicious drive that is fueled by both passion and intellect (a style he describes as “elegance in the form of a black elephant”), but on “R.A.P. Music” his diatribes take on an even more menacing shape. Last year, I thoroughly enjoyed his album “Pl3dge,” but whenever I listened to it, I always felt it just needed a little something more to make it really pop. It seems that Mike has found that secret ingredient in the form of producer El-P. On this full-length collaboration, the duo combine their talents to create an album that is packed with emotional hills and valleys that will take you through the landscape of rap music over the past three decades.
“JoJo’s Chillin” takes on the persona of a 1980s era hip-hop classic with Mike laying out a Sugarhill Gang style storyline while El-P’s funky bassline and 808 beat blow the dust off that old Run DMC album in your attic. “Anywhere But Here” is a 90s gangsta jam that could easily fit alongside songs on “The Chronic” and “All Eyez on Me”, while “Don’t Die” emulates the intimidating persona of NWA/Public Enemy (specifically, Ice Cube’s vocal styling), cop sirens and all. If you miss the reference, Mike makes sure to hit the connection home at one point calling himself a “Public Enemy” and the final punctuation of the song “Fuck the Police.” Don’t worry; the track isn’t simply a retread of past themes. Mike brings his own knowledge to the table, rapping, “I’ve been labeled outlaw, renegade, villain / So was Martin King, so the system had to kill him.”
No one is safe from Mike’s criticism – he is equal opportunity in his exposé. On “Reagan,” (yes, that Reagan) Killer Mike prefaces his annihilation of Ronald Reagan’s administration with a verse exposing the misplaced values of African-Americans. His blames is aimed at both the people and the powerful black entertainers who aren’t using the gospel of Rap music for the powers of good: “We brag on having bread, but none of us are bakers / We all talk having greens, but none of us own acres.” He continues with “So it seems our people starve from lack of understanding / Cos all we seem to give them is some balling and some dancing / And some talking about our car and imaginary mansions.”
Don’t get me wrong, the majority of “Reagan” is a malicious mauling on the powers that be. Regardless of where you stand politically, Killer Mike’s meticulous dissection of our country’s leaders and their misuse of power will provide you with a hair-raising experience. While rappers like Tyler the Creator and Eminem try to shock the listener with vulgarity, Killer Mike stuns you with knowledge. Reagan and Oliver North may be the main victims of his onslaught, but no president goes unscathed:
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
El-P brings the goods once again with a backing track to “Reagan” that would work just as well on the soundtrack for “Natural Born Killers.” If Trent Reznor ever made a hip-hop album, it might sound something like this:
Yes, many of the songs on “R.A.P. Music” seem to focus on violence and the difficulty of growing up in Atlanta, Georgia, yet there is also an underline theme throughout of education being the true savior for those struggling to make it day-to-day. On the heart crushing “Willie Burke Sherwood” Mike makes this point blatantly clear as he recounts his childhood: “I convinced myself it was better for me / To be Jack in ‘The Lord of the Flies’/ So book got read, books I read / Cause I’m addicted to literature.” I’ve heard of rappers dealing with addiction, but an addiction to literature? That’s a new one (and I kind of like it). Glimpses of this literary influence are seen throughout. On “Big Beast” he shouts, “We the readers of the books and the leaders of the crooks” and on “Anywhere But Here” he gives a shout out to, of all people, poet Langston Hughes and his poem “Dream Deferred” when he says, “So you ask what happens to a dream deferred, Langston / Well it kill its self.”
It may not be hip to rap about dead poets and allegorical pieces of literature, but herein lies the core of what Killer Mike means when he speaks of how he can change a life with his rhymes – he sees how edification affected his life and is now trying to pass that awareness along to his listeners. Mike has been in the rap game for a while, and instead of simply using “R.A.P. Music” as another chance to cash in, he values the opportunity to pour his wisdom into his listeners’ ears. Along with the help of the musical mad scientist El-P, Mike has relished the moment and created an instant classic that fills a vacuous hip-hop void with music that is heartfelt, fiery, and honest. A dream deferred may kill its self, but “R.A.P. Music” is evidence of what happens when a dream is fully realized.
“Anywhere But Here”: