Killer Mike had been around. Since being taken under OutKast’s wing and making his debut on their legendary Stankonia, the man otherwise known as Michael Render had struck out on his own and released a string of solo albums that, while garnering him his fervent supporters, didn’t ever quite click. The vision or execution had never entirely cohered for an album-length statement. Mike was falling into one of those lanes where he was a clearly formidable rapper with goodwill surrounding him, but not making the kind of great masterwork that centered him in the conversation. In 2012, as he was teetering into his late thirties, that changed. When R.A.P. Music arrived, 10 years ago yesterday, it felt like a culmination of all the potential people had seen in Killer Mike, but also something new. That, in turn, set it up to become a crucial turning point for Mike.
The origins of R.A.P. Music are based on a series of unlikely meetings. In the late ’00s, Killer Mike had befriended Adult Swim’s Jason DeMarco, one of the people behind Adult Swim’s web of music releases. Some years later, Mike told DeMarco he wanted to make something he couldn’t make elsewhere, citing Ice Cube’s AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted as a major influence. As DeMarco recalled while speaking to Rolling Stone in 2014, Mike put it like this: “I want to make records like that — it was fun and funky, it was dope as shit and serious and had messages.” DeMarco had a particular recommendation in mind: the Brooklyn producer El-P, an underground luminary known for his warped apocalyptic beats — music that existed in a lineage directly tied back to the old-school era Mike was citing, but took it into a melted future.
Initially, El-P was meant to be one of many producers working on Mike’s forthcoming album. He already had beats from a bunch of different sources, many of them of-the-moment and more famous than El. But after El-P came down to Atlanta for a couple days, something else animated Mike. He called him over and over again, knowing now that he needed El to produce the entirety of the album.
In the same way that AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted marked a temporary alliance between East and West Coast by having Ice Cube rap over Bomb Squad production, R.A.P. Music was, at the time, a deeply implausible hybrid. Even though crossover success eluded him, Mike had primarily been working in a more mainstream rap vein — or, at the very least, a deeply Southern vein. El was just as deeply New York and definitively situated in an underground style that managed to blend classicism and avant-garde. Much was made of how their partnership wore down boundaries in rap music, territorial lines that were already eroding thanks to the contractions of the music industry. In a way, Killer Mike and El-P teaming up also felt like a product of the internet era, a piece of music derived from its regional identities but colliding into something unique and not entirely traceable.
But first, all that mattered was that the collaboration turned out to be wildly inspired. Killer Mike wasn’t wrong in realizing that there was something in El-P’s production that brought out the best in him. R.A.P. Music became 12 tracks of almost completely unrelenting intensity. Mike’s delivery was always naturally percussive and cannon-like, but it felt even more amplified above El-P’s brash, caustic beats.
From the very beginning, it was clear this album was a take-no-prisoners affair. “Big Beast” was a ferocious head-cave-in of an opener, Mike charging out the gates like a man who’s just finally realized his own power. Throughout the song, he used El-P’s backdrop to become more himself than ever. “Big Beast” featured southern icons T.I. and Bun B, in two of R.A.P. Music’s few guest appearances. “Ain’t shit sweet bout the peach — this Atlanta, clown/ Home of the dealers and the strippers and the clubs, though,” Mike proclaimed. Then, a manifesto for the album to follow: “I don’t make dance music, this is R.A.P./ Opposite of the sucker shit they play on TV.”
What followed was a hardened, visceral album, Mike fired up nearly throughout. The blasted atmospherics and grit of R.A.P. Music were appropriate, with Mike grappling with all manner of social ills and political themes. The album’s centerpiece was a sprawling document of the Reagan era, police brutality, America’s meddling in foreign affairs while subjugating its own Black citizens, and, eventually, Mike’s conclusion that Reagan was just a mechanism of larger, more actively pernicious power structures — just like any other president. It’s the bleak heart at the core of the album, and so much of the rest of R.A.P. Music travels similarly desolate streets.
It’s only towards the end where Mike softens at all, for the more mournful and wistful “Anywhere But Here” — an oddly haunting and pretty moment amongst the wreckage surrounding it. Then there is the album’s closer and title track, a sort of answer to everything that came before. When Mike roared, “Pow, motherfucker, pow!” on “Big Beast,” it was an opening salvo. But by the end, this isn’t dance music, but a whole lot of other things, as Mike presents a new mission statement: “This is jazz, this is funk, this is soul, this is gospel… This is church, front pew, amen, pulpit/ What my people need and the opposite of bullshit.” Killer Mike had finally made his statement, and it resounded.
But at the same time as R.A.P. Music’s runaway acclaim signaled the long-awaited triumph of Killer Mike, it would also turn out to be both a conclusion of his solo era and the beginning of something new. At the beginning of “JoJo’s Chillin,” another important mission statement arrived: “This album was created entirely by Jaime and Mike.” You’ve heard versions of that phrase since, but it was just a hint in 2012. In addition to producing the entire album, we got one instance of actually hearing Mike and El-P trade verses, on “Butane (Champion’s Anthem).” Then, Mike returned the favor and appeared on El-P’s Cancer 4 Cure, released just a week after R.A.P. Music. The two toured together, and they kept realizing they had some new spark in their collaboration and friendship. They decided to form a duo and call it Run The Jewels.
You already know that story. As implausible as R.A.P. Music was, Run The Jewels is almost a complete aberration. Here were two guys from completely different backgrounds, but both underdogs in the grand rap landscape, winning over indie-leaning rap fans and music critics with the charm and chaotic fun of their 2013 debut. At one point, that could’ve seemed a one-off. Instead, RTJ became one of the most lauded and obsessed over new rap entities of the 2010s. El-P and Killer Mike both cruised into middle age, having each found a new brother, having each found the sound and voice they’d always needed to become who they were supposed to be all along.
In the last 10 years, neither has released a solo album. They’ve instead careened through four wild-eyed RTJ albums that equally played as prime lose-your-mind-in-a-festival-field party music and as a corroded soundtrack for dire times. And it makes sense: Those two have reached an entirely different level together rather than apart, not just in terms of commercial success but most importantly as artists. Now, 10 years later, R.A.P. Music is both the grand finale to Killer Mike’s solo years and the prologue to a whole other ride. In terms of his solo career, it’s the best thing he ever did. In terms of what happened next, he and El-P were just getting started.