May 18, 2012

Doc Zeus is also glad that Reagan’s dead.

Given their shared fondness for bombast and apocalyptic oration, I imagine a choir of avenging archangels were sent as heralds to mark the occasion when Killer Mike and El-P met. Certain artists just simply belong working with each other and its no coincidence when fate forms a group even stronger than the pieces of the whole.

So, yeah… If you cannot tell from the enthusiastic tone of the previous paragraph, R.A.P. Music, the latest offering from Atlanta street preacher, Killer Mike, and New York indie rap god-cyborg, El-P, is an unqualified triumph. It is a completely realized piece of art born in a crack den of Ronald Reagan’s America, schooled in the false-highs of the Clintonian ’90s and re-contextualized for the age of Obama. It’s an homage and outright heir to the firebrand political rap of Public Enemy and Ice Cube, and a deeply personal record built on Killer Mike’s sad lament for a lost American dream. Rap music doesn’t get better than this.

The story starts with Michael Render. For years, Killer Mike has been producing some of hip hop’s most unique and versatile rap music that seemingly only the most devoted of Dungeon Family disciples wanted to acknowledge. Releasing a string of largely slept-on classics going back to his days as Antwan Patton’s right hand man, Killer Mike has arguably been as consistent and diverse as any rapper this side of Tony Starks over the last decade. His brand of reformed crack dealer-cum-troublemaking preacher rap has been showcased for years in masterworks like the I Pledge Allegiance To The Grind trilogy and other classic songs and compilations. Few artists since the turn of the century have better blended weapons grade political rap with trunk-rattling trap rap better than Killer Mike. But R.A.P. Music might be Killer Mike’s most accomplished and stunning piece of music yet.

Killer Mike has never sounded more ready for a fight. The album plays like a declaration of war against all things bullshit, especially the superficialities of modern hip hop and by proxy the lies of American life. On “Big Beast,” the album’s opening salvo, Killer Mike bellows “this is hardcore G shit, homey, I don’t play around/ain’t shit sweet bout the peach/this Atlanta, clown.” It’s a statement of purpose, with precision missile strikes to the legacy of the prison industrial complex on the stunning “Reagan,” police corruption on “Don’t Die” and the false paradigm of the Democrat/Republican dichotomy on “Untitled.” He isn’t even afraid to filet a few sacred cows as when he goes after President Obama’s continued extension of Reagan Era imperialism.

R.A.P. Music is not all political fire and brimstone either. Killer Mike has been exploring the dualities of the modern black man in America for years and this record is no different. He narrates his journey from a precocious young boy obsessed with the Lord Of The Flies in Atlanta to becoming a Grammy winning rap star on the poignant “Willie Burke Sherwood.” The song is a touching tribute to family (particularly fathers and sons) in the face of struggle and proves that Mike can make music beyond the brash masculinity that he’s known for. On the haunting “Anywhere But Here,” Killer Mike sees the ghosts of the American dream in our urban cities and expresses a desire to escape it all. Stylistically reminiscent of UK trip hop, it’s unquestionably one of the highlights on the album.

El-P is the other half of the story. R.A.P. Music is the first album that El-P has produced for another artist in its entirety since Cannibal Ox’s landmark The Cold Vein. On the album, El-P lays a soundtrack for Killer Mike’s war stories that might be his most accomplished production work to date. For years, El-P’s beat making has been favorably compared to Public Enemy’s legendary production crew, the Bomb Squad, and never has that lofty praise been more apt. El-P manages to successfully fuse the duo’s obvious old school rap nostalgia (“Jojo’s Chillin’”), his characteristic paranoid synth buzz (“Butane”) and Killer Mike’s southern rap roots (“Southern Fried”). It’s as if the members of UGK, BDP and Portishead had an orgy next to Snake Plissken’s prison cell. The record manages to comfortably exist in 1986 while remaining fresh for 2012.

What really sets the album off is the duo’s unique chemistry.  El-P has never produced for an artist with as booming of a voice as Killer Mike (probably because few exist).  For a producer so centrally tied with the aesthetics of the 2000s indie rap music, it’s ironic that a rapper so intrinsically tied with southern rap royalty as Killer Mike is finally able to fill in the Escher-esque ebb and flows of his swirling production style. Mike’s thundering delivery only  enhances the cacophony. It’s why the Amerikkka’s Most Wanted comparisons are so apt. They might really be the space-age Cube and Bomb Squad.

What’s most exciting is the potential this record might have in finally breaking down the artificial barriers between the eternally warring factions of rap. If Killer Mike and El-P can form a beautiful friendship, there is no reason why we can’t hear 2Chainz rock over Pete Rock or Action Bronson on Organized Noize. On Twitter, El-P openly expressed his desire to work on an album with Nas and the mere thought of that Marvel team-up should send true hip hop fans into a sugar-high induced coma of pure joy. Killer Mike is right. This is exactly what the people need. No bullshit.

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