In the years I’ve been writing about music, I’ve done a whole ton of interviews — some great, some painfully awkward. But my favorite one happened a little more than four years ago at a Brazilian steakhouse in Manhattan, where I sat down with the firebrand Atlanta rapper Killer Mike. Mike’s publicist was friends with the restaurant’s publicist, so we both got to eat for free. And so I got to go in on these gigantic chunks of meat while Mike, one of the most incisive and enthusiastic minds in all of rap music, held forth for a couple of hours, displaying extreme candor and holding nothing back. I left with the impression that Mike was a ridiculously pleasant guy with a whole lot to say, and then I went back to my office and typed until my hands hurt. I had a couple of cassettes of him talking, and nothing seemed insubstantial enough to delete from the Q&A. In this line of work, experiences like that don’t happen too often, and Mike impressed me in a way that no other musician had, before or since. He seemed like such a furiously smart and genuine human being, then, that I had to wonder how he hadn’t managed to translate that depth and intensity of vision to an entire full-length album; he seemed to only be going full-bore for a song or two at a time. Back then, he’d just started releasing his series of I Pledge Allegiance To The Grind albums, which got stronger with every installment and grew to become something majestic. But now it’s happened: He’s translated all his passion and ideas into one single album, and it’s a monster.
The first thing anyone will tell you about R.A.P. Music is that El-P, the New York skronk-rap pioneer whose cluster-bomb production for Company Flow and Cannibal Ox helped establish how turn-of-the-millennium backpack rap sounded, produced the entire thing. That is a big, big deal. A decade or more ago, these guys were probably aware of each other, but it’s near-impossible to imagine them occupying the same room. They’re certainly compatible minds — rap nerds of a certain age who lean toward battering-ram bluster and 808 thuds. They both had a knack for showing up on records with their headier peers and just Godzilla-stomping their way through — Killer Mike’s verse on OutKast’s “The Whole World” could be considered a distant cousin of El-P’s verse on Aesop Rock’s “We’re Famous.” But back then, those two guys lived in entirely different spheres. These days, rap has shrunken to the point where almost all of it could be considered underground. And I love the idea of Mike and El slowly circling each other for years, finally hooking up for an entire full-length, one that builds on both of their ideas and aesthetics, one that the motherfucking Cartoon Network bankrolled. The simple existence of this album feels like a small miracle.
And what’s more important is that it works. Mike has repeatedly made mention of the Bomb Squad’s production on Ice Cube’s first solo album AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted — hectic East Coast noise-rap meeting snarling L.A. gangster shit — as a precedent. R.A.P. Music can’t hope to equal the earthshattering impact of that album, but the comparison holds up; these guys bring out the best in each other. In producing for Mike, El has dialed down the discordance he loves — or, more accurately, put it into the service of an elemental boom-clap pound that evokes the primal simplicity of Rick Rubin’s mid-’80s production without ever attempting to recreate it. Opening track “Big Beast” is all stabs and blares and Public Enemy synth-growls — busy but also heavy — and authoritative Southern-legend guests T.I. and Bun B fit right in. “Southern Fried” has chopped-up guitars and organs that speak to Mike’s country-rap heritage without ever sacrificing frag-grenade intensity. “Reagan” is ominous soundtrack shit. “Anywhere But Here” has some of the apocalyptic melody that El’s buddy Trent Reznor brought to even the most feral Nine Inch Nails tracks. The whole thing sounds amazing, but it’s not simply a producer’s showcase. It’s all there to support what Mike does. And he fucking does it here.
As a rapper, Mike is a no-subtlety type, a bellowing street-preacher who doesn’t dial back the volume even when he’s making tender dedications to family members. When Mike was making major-label albums, he and his handlers seemed uncertain of how to translate that quality into something resembling rap stardom. Now that he’s totally stopped thinking about stuff like this, he’s free to just stay in complete monster mode for the entire length of an album. That screaming-down-the-ceiling-tiles volatility can get to be a bit much over the full-length. Mike has shared stages with Immortal Technique lately, and he shares a bit of musical DNA with that extreme-lefty Occupy favorite. But even when Mike is on his rabble-rousing shit, there’s a direct personal resonance to everything he says. Plenty of rappers talk about police brutality, but most of them don’t sound as personally offended as Mike does: “They boots was on our head, they dogs was on our crotches / And they would beat us up if we had diamonds on our watches.” And he makes compelling arguments about, say, the issues behind prison privatization. But he also knows when to knock that off and zone out on the breakneck tough-talk sprint “Go!” or have fun telling the absurdist drug-smuggling narrative “JoJo’s Chillin.” And on repeated listens, even the clumsiest struggle-rap bits bleed into the overall righteous narrative, and you start to realize that even those have some serious levels of technique.
For most of R.A.P. Music, Mike’s voice is the only one we hear, and you need to be in the right mood to expose yourself to 46 minutes of that blood-boiling harangue. But when you are in the right mood, R.A.P. Music is the sort of album that will make you feel like you can kick a hole in a concrete wall. It is tough, intense, deeply felt music, and it also represents a guy who’s been around forever finally actualizing every bit of his potential. I’m happy to have it in my life.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Beach House’s woozily huge Bloom.
• Best Coast’s Jon Brion-produced heartache-fest The Only Place.
• Ab-Soul’s excellently scattered rap freakout Control System.
• Garbage’s self-produced return Not Your Kind Of People.
• Emotive, grizzled punk veterans Hot Water Music’s reunion LP Exister.
• Tenacious D’s goofy power-metal comeback album Rize Of The Fenix.
• Black Tambourine’s EP of Ramones covers OneTwoThreeFour.
• Willie Nelson’s umpteen millionth LP Heroes.
• Cornershop’s most recent foray into polyglot power-pop Urban Turban.
• Squarepusher’s dizzy IDM cutup Ufabulum.
• Rye Rye’s long-delated club-pop debut Go! Pop! Bang!
• MV & EE’s lo-fi outsider-folk full-length Space Homestead.