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Killer Mike turns inwards on ‘Michael’

Killer Mike's new album ‘Michael’ is an autobiographical origin story of sorts, documenting the experiences that shaped his music, politics and faith

'Michael' is Killer Mike's first solo album in 11 years,
'Michael' is Killer Mike's first solo album in 11 years,

Eleven years ago, Killer Mike disavowed God in favour of the Church of Rap. On the title track of 2012’s R.A.P. Music—a breakout record that catapulted him from underground also-ran to late-stage superstar—the Atlanta, US, rapper laid down the blueprint for his ministry of hip hop, with its sinners and its saints (including Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Aretha Franklin and other icons of black excellence and notoriety). “This is church, front pew, amen, pulpit,” he rapped over blown-out synths, like a preacher deep in the throes of revelation. “What my people need and the opposite of bulls**t!

Over the past decade and a bit, he has pursued that mission, of spreading the good word of black self-reliance and radical activism, with unfiltered zeal and to great success. Run The Jewels—his rap super-duo with New York rapper-producer El-P—married potty-mouthed revolutionary rage with joyful braggadocio and bombastic future-dystopian production for four commercially massive albums that perfectly captured the mood of a nation mid-collapse, at war with itself. The duo’s unexpected fame gave Mike the chance to put his politics into action.

When Ferguson, Missouri burned in the wake of the extra-judicial murder of Mike Brown in 2014, he spoke about the corrosive effect of police brutality in a heartfelt speech that went viral. He campaigned for the American politician Bernie Sanders in 2016 and endorsed the Labour Party’s Jeremy Corbyn for the 2017 UK election live at Glastonbury. He created and hosted a Netflix show (Trigger Warning With Killer Mike) in 2019 that addressed issues affecting the black community, complete with experimental solutions such as intra-gang small business and creating a new religion. Over the 2010s, Mike became that rare thing, a veteran rapper whose political rage and vision haven’t been blunted by middle age and wealth.

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More recently though, the many contradictions of Mike’s position have been causing a disturbance in the Force. His advocacy for the working class sometimes rubs up against rap’s dynamic of aspirational capitalism, as well as Mike’s own status as a landlord and mom-and-pop capitalist. His belief in the black man’s right to be armed in self-defence pushed him into an ill-advised interview with the cop-loving National Rifle Association, while other sit-downs with Trumpist Republican candidates haven’t gone down well with many black activists. Killer Mike the revolutionary occasionally struggles with Michael Render, the family man with a lot to lose.

On Michael—his first solo album in 11 years, released last month—Mike turns inwards to grapple with these contradictions and explore their roots. An autobiographical origin story of sorts, the album documents the life of a young ’un growing up on the crack-infested streets of Atlanta and the experiences that shaped his music, politics and faith. It’s a story of trap houses and gospel churches, of drug-running thugs and resilient black women, of a life pushed and pulled into different directions in the pursuit of sex, money and divine salvation.

The black evangelist churches that he disavowed on R.A.P. Music are now front and centre, not just in the maximalist church organs and gospel choirs woven throughout Michael’s 14 songs but also in the street liberation theology of tracks like High & Holy and Down By Law. The latter, which opens the album, lays down the tenets of Mike’s personal theology. “Bless all the felons that handled the raw,” he raps, declaring his empathy for the loser, the disaffected, the outlaw. “F*** all the tellers that ran to the law.

Shed Tears—elevated by Lena Byrd Myles’ soaring vocals—offers up incisive comments on black masculinity and his fears about fatherhood, while the Louis Farrakhan-sampling Something For The Junkies is a heartbreaking account of growing up with loved ones who are hopeless addicts, and the hurt and loss that accompanies their inevitable deaths (“Know somebody somewhere praying, ‘I hope my mama don’t die’”).

Elsewhere, on Slummer, Mike offers a deeply compassionate and sympathetic account of teenage abortion from the perspective of the would-be father: the ecstasy of young romance, the bluster of promising to provide for a child when you are still one yourself, the conflicted feelings after the inevitable termination. Run—featuring Young Thug—captures the defiant will to live that underpins black resilience and success, while the sublime 6lack and Eryn Allen Kane jazz-hop collab NRICH references Uncle Toms and Sam Greenlee’s novel The Spook Who Sat By The Door to make a potent argument against the internecine strife that undercuts black unity and resistance.

The record’s high point comes on Motherless, a gut-wrenching, starkly honest elegy for the mother and grandmother who raised Mike, his earthy, heartbroken baritone in sharp counterpoint to Kane’s ethereal melismas. “My mama dead, my grandmama dead,” he raps, a brutally simple and effective statement of loss that hits harder than any poetic allusion. Michael is littered with such moments of tender devastation and sucker-punch emotion, interspersed with Mike’s usual pugnacious and pugilistic rhymes.

Sadly, the brutal honesty and clarity with which the rapper addresses his personal flaws, trials and tribulations isn’t as evident when he addresses the political backlash of recent months. On Talk’N That Shit, the Michael who has spent all album taking responsibility for his decisions—good and bad—gives way to slight “old man yells at cloud” energy as he dismisses criticism as “woke ass s**t”, rhyming it with a vaguely homophobic Brokeback Mountain punchline. His choice to start Run with a lengthy Dave Chappelle vocal sample is also telling, given the latter’s transphobia. And let’s be honest, jibes about his critics being broke and lazy sound less like the challenge of a radical hell-raiser and more like the defensive retorts of his new millionaire contemporaries.

It turns out, even a figure as powerful and vital as Killer Mike can’t escape the contradictions of rebelling via an art form that fetishises capitalist accumulation or the knee-jerk conservatism of old radicals struggling to keep up with the revolution. That said, Michael remains a powerful, essential new addition to the contemporary rap oeuvre by a storyteller at the top of his game.

Bhanuj Kappal is a Mumbai-based writer.

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