Killer Mike – R.A.P. Music
Killer Mike’s sixth full-length sees the veteran MC spit over bright and colourful beats courtesy of Company Flow’s El-P. Even though it’s Mike’s name on the cover R.A.P. Music is to all intents and purposes a collaborative release. The cell-shaded artwork is indicative of the 13 cartoony, chaotic and over-the-top tracks to follow. The album is pretty brief by hip-hop standards but full to the point of splitting open with paranoid flows and hyperactive arrangements. It goes hard and fast though it’s too overblown to be called gritty in the realistic sense.
Mike’s delivery is heavily influenced by the likes of early 90s Ice Cube and right from the don’t-fuck-with-me opener ‘Big Beast’ the record’s love of the past comes into focus – aside from the urgent, semi-shouted vocals of the first verse, the song drops references to Cube’s AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted and Boogie Down Productions’ ’9mm’. R.A.P. Music (Rebellious African People Music) is interested in the genre on the whole and exaggerated recreations of its highlights, which is where El-P’s production comes into its own. The track hangs its flow on the kind of skittering hi-hats you’re more likely to hear on Big Boi’s Sir Lucious Left Foot, and pounds every bar with massive drum hits. If anything the beat on ‘Big Beast’ might have benefited from being a little sharper and less muddy, but it’s a good match to Mike’s confrontational rhymes and sets R.A.P. Music up as forward thinking as well as madly in love with hip-hop’s past.
The bass and beats stay resonant and crisp on ‘Untitled’ and Mike’s steady and deliberate performance picks up the pace on ‘Go!’ where El-P pulls a manic array of samples together, overlapping as the track draws to its close. The consistent production glues all the weird ideas together and as soon as it seems to be too dependent on its rugged drum sound and bulging synths there’s a game-changer like ‘Reagan’ thrown in. Mike laments how the 40th President and bullshit gangsta rap ideology managed to fuck up a generation, over a collage of piano and noisy electronic samples. On this track and across the board Mike’s lyrics are spot on. He’s no Noam Chomsky when it comes to political commentary but his insights about society and hip-hop itself go beyond gushing praise for the genre.
Though it’s testament to Mike’s ability that he comes up with his characters and ways to ride the beat it’s El-P’s production that enables him to realise the vision of the album. His tendency to change the rhythm at multiple points during certain tracks takes as much influence from the genre’s esoteric underground as 90s hardcore or southern rap. It covers so much ground and takes cues from so many branches of hip-hop that calling out one or two influences almost seems misleading.
The duo come together at their best on ‘Don’t Die’, an action movie, fugitive on the run piece where Mike is back on Ice Cube form and matched at every turn by El-P’s drum loops, siren samples and huge analogue synths. There’s no hook because it would only mess with the flow. It’s a paranoid, lightning in a bottle moment of drama where both artists fall completely into sync.
The comic book tendencies of R.A.P. Music don’t divorce the record from emotion – ‘Anywhere But Here’ with its gorgeous Emily Panic hook, the aforementioned ‘Reagan’ and the self-titled history-of-hip-hop final track maintain their bite despite Mike and El-P’s colourful brush strokes. Instead it’s the rap clichés that are reinvigorated through the artists’ self-awareness. It has its peaks and not every track lives up to the record’s best, but R.A.P. Music is lean enough and filled with enough great ideas, most of them well-executed, to never lose steam. There will be very few hip-hop albums released this year that are more colourful, cleverly intertextual or contain as many references to Lord of the Flies, and despite its debt to the past this is much more than a classicist record.