There was a time in the not so distant past that rappers were regarded by many to be dangerous, scary, figures. Many of Hip-Hop’s most revered acts were purveyors of counterculture and dissent. N.W.A. and Public Enemy, in name, sound and content were the boogeyman under America’s too-comfortable bed. Crack, poverty, gang violence and police misconduct were affecting millions of voiceless communities throughout this nation, and the musical representatives borne of this struggle did not look on silently. They spoke up and told our story.
Those voices echo from the southern baritone of Killer Mike on R.A.P. Music. Produced entirely by New York underground rap stalwart El-P, it’s easy to draw comparisons to Ice Cube’s Bomb Squad-produced masterpiece AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted. Though both albums share production that can be accurately (and in Mike’s case, ironically) described as organized noise, this album is less about invoking nostalgia and more about evolution and natural progression. R.A.P. Music isn’t a clone created in a laboratory, as much as it is the offspring of the politically aware ’90s and decadent 2000s that prompted Mike’s bad temper.
One of Killer Mike’s best qualities is his expression of genuine anger, an emotion much more nuanced than threats of violence and onomatopoeic ad-libs. He starts the album with a haymaker in the Bun B- and T.I.-featured “Big Beast.” With Mike at full street corner preacher pitch, the trio tears down El-P’s rapid high hats and dissonant synths like affordable housing in gentrified neighborhoods. On “Go” Mike shows off multiple flows and cadences, zipping around the busy production like an expert stunt driver in a Michael Bay film. “Southern Fried” finds the Atlanta native comfortably in his wheelhouse, descriptively reciting the best things about life below the Mason-Dixon.
The haunting “Reagan” stands as the album’s centerpiece. Named for a man whose policies, some would argue, created the environment that allowed Hip-Hop to come into existence, the song is at once an indictment of irresponsibility on the part of Hip-Hop artists (including himself) and the American political and social landscape. “Don’t Die” and “JoJo’s Chillin’” display Killer’s vivid storytelling ability, with the latter’s “Public Enemy No. 1” smothered in gravy production being the most obvious musical nod to his sociopolitical Hip-Hop forbears.
R.A.P. Music doesn’t have any real singles because the album doesn’t need them. There are no wasted moments or filler tracks. Even with the few guest appearances, there’s never once the feeling this album is anything more than the vision of two creative, laser-focused talents who love making Hip-Hop music. The album proves that substance and entertainment value can coexist, that opinions need not be preachy or ham-fisted and that it’s alright to be pissed off sometimes. Each individual song isn’t perfect or necessarily revolutionary, but the sum of the parts is an excellent body of work that will stand up well against anything released this year.
Label: Williams Street | Producer: El-P