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Killer Mike
R.A.P Music Kyle Ellison , July 16th, 2012 06:38

Rebellious African People's music is a concept that is at once straightforward and deceptively complex. Stylistically - operating as the album does within the field of hip-hop - by its own definition it already gives a fair idea what you're likely to hear. Yet that concise, emotive phrase is also a summation of a truth that trickles through the veins of all hip-hop, a genre founded on an ongoing struggle for equality. Of course, rap is far from restricted to one issue, but R.A.P. Music is an album that takes the energy of hip hop’s rebellious instincts as its heart and reminds us of their importance.

Taking the album’s title by its other meaning, R.A.P. Music is also a record with 25 years' worth of rap references sewn into its grooves. Just fifty days separate the births of Killer Mike and this album’s sole producer El-P, two people whose formative years were spent immersed in rap music’s golden age. That close relationship with hip-hop's history is obvious throughout, as El-P’s beats bump and swagger with the best of them, while Killer Mike spits references to OutKast, Ghostface, Cuban Linx, Biggie, Goodie Mob, Eazy E, Slick Rick, 2 Live Crew, Def Jam circa ’93... You get the picture. I haven’t even started on the implicit references.

Mike is more than just a skilled name-dropper though, he’s also a first rate storyteller, social commentator and occasionally – as on the tribute to his grandfather, ‘Willie Burke Sherwood’ – genuine tearjerker. The two most directly political songs, ‘Raegan’ and ‘Don’t Die’, sit purposefully next to one another in the centre of the album. While the former tackles a wider set of issues, spanning contemporary hip-hop, the Iran-contra affair and modern day politics, 'Don't Die' is a more focused dissection of police discrimination. Mike's description of a violent altercation between a young black male protagonist and a cop is perhaps R.A.P Music's finest moment, enhanced by El-P's presence, channeling Mad Max through a dystopian sci-fi instrumental. Just when you thought your system was getting its full work-out too, the song's final section rattles the waveform to its extremes with a thunderous kick-clap combination.

On the subject of El-P, it's no great surprise that he provides a masterclass in production throughout. Importantly, it isn't the case that you could simply switch these beats with those on his recently released solo album Cancer 4 Cure; they've been tailored to Mike and play to his strengths. 'Southern Fried', for example, makes use of a church organ and wailing electric guitars to give the song its country rap flavour, while the relative simplicity of ‘Jojo's Chillin’ affords Mike plenty of breathing room to tell his hilarious drug smuggling tale. Even so, when awarded his one guest verse on ‘Butane (Champion’s Anthem)’ he makes one hell of an entrance ("Yo, I'm a grinch, with a grin I will shit on your kids / till the light, get a grip, get a hold of my dick bitch, make a wish").

Killer Mike has spent the last decade not getting the praise he deserves as an MC, though few would have predicted that his jump into the critical limelight would come via collaboration with El-P. But then, Mike's style and content has never been a snug fit for the big label system, and El-P too has found his career rejuvenated by association with some new faces outside of the Def Jux stable. Before this record's release, the coming together of these two was mooted as an unlikely collaboration, but for a record which can basically be viewed as a love letter to rap music, I’d struggle to think of a more logical pairing.