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Killer Mike
Michael Arusa Qureshi , June 21st, 2023 07:22

With shades of gospel and soul (plus gues spots from Andre 3000, CeeLo Green and 6lack), Michael shows a more personal side to the Run The Jewels rapper, finds Arusa Qureshi

Perhaps best known as one half of hip-hop duo Run The Jewels, Killer Mike’s visceral verses have cemented him as one of the genre’s most formidable contemporary voices. In his latest solo effort though – his first since 2012 – we see a clear shift away from the fast, loud and defiant RTJ sound that has become so synonymous with Mike and fellow rapper-producer El-P over the past decade. Michael certainly has shades of defiance running throughout, but above all else, it’s a highly-personal project – a deep dive into his Atlanta heritage, his experiences with drugs, death and trauma and the major events that have defined his life.

Described as his origin story, Michael is an autobiographical record that unpicks the character of Killer Mike as we’ve come to know him, introducing us to the multifaceted, complex and conflicted human being that is Michael Render. Executive produced by No ID, the record’s beauty lies not only in Mike’s trademark phrasing and poetry, but also in the prominent influence of gospel, soul, and blues. Opener ‘Down By Law’, for example, an introductory mission statement of sorts, incorporates the distinctive vocals of Goodie Mob’s CeeLo Green which add a meaningful balance to the harshness of Mike’s words. ‘Don’t Let The Devil’, meanwhile, which features El-P and sounds like a solid RTJ number, is gospel-soaked in its make-up, with some stunning vocal samples from Little Shalimar elevating the overall narrative.

The focal point of the album comes in the form of ‘Motherless’, a track that accentuates the catharsis at the heart of Michael. The song, which opens with the lyrics: “My momma dead. My grandmama dead”, confronts the loss Mike has felt in his life head on, and the influence of both women and their absence on his growth and development. Mike has even admitted in interviews that until the process of recording Michael, he had never uttered those words out loud, a fact that adds weight to the underlying purpose and purgative quality of the album.

In ‘Motherless’, as in tracks throughout the record, Mike’s words are accompanied by lush background vocals and choral harmonies from the likes of Eryn Allen Kane, which add a sermon-like feel. We hear this clearly in ‘Slummer’, with contributions from Atlanta R&B group Jagged Edge, and the piano-led ‘Something For Junkies’. Elsewhere, the militaristic drums of ‘Shed Tears’, which includes a powerful guest spot from recently incarcerated rapper Mozzy, is softened by the harmonising of the accompanying choir, and their repeated delivery of the phrase “rest for your soul”.

In addition to names like CeeLo Green, Michael also features Andre 3000 of Outkast, Young Thug, 6LACK, Ty Dolla $ign and more. Beyond the impressive list of guest stars though, this is an album that reflects on one person’s history and is steeped in honesty, grief and empathy as a result. Michael closes with the voice of a woman praying in Yoruba on ‘High and Holy’, which seems fitting both as a direct reference to the album’s foundations in spirituality but also in its nod to this newly meditative and somber territory for Killer Mike.