“Hardcore G shit” is what Killer Mike tells us is coming when he opens R.A.P. Music with “Big Beast.” He also makes clear it comes from his home town, Atlanta. He’s letting you know you’re on his turf for this record and he is running the show. His angry bark is loud and high in the mix, nearly drowning out a powerful beat — provided, as they all are here, by El-P — with his shouting. It’s a confrontational start to the record, a drawing of lines, but it’s also essential to understanding where Mike is coming from on his new record.
Killer Mike is a guy who has never quite gotten the respect he deserves. Despite a series of increasingly excellent records, including last year’s Pl3dge, and despite being tied to the likes of Outkast, he has not quite received the recognition he has earned. So, on “Big Beast,” he is coming after “all of y’all lames,” the rappers and producers that are getting undue praise, that are taking the spotlight that should be his. It’s a declaration that Mike not only intends to establish his own legacy, but that he knows he deserves it, and he’ll take the fake shine from others on the way to his own spot on the throne. Lucky for him, R.A.P. Music sounds every bit the classic he wants it to be.
Once he loudly declares his place in hip-hop, the rest of R.A.P. Music (the R.A.P. stands for Rebellious African People’s) focuses very much on legacy, and not just Mike’s. We get the legacy of hip-hop, of families, of class, of race. On “Untitled,” he wonders “Will my woman be Coretta, take my name and cherish it” when he dies or “will Jackie O, drop the Kennedy, remarry it?” This comes framed in a larger worry, though, about the history of black-on-black violence, and Killer Mike, for all the bluster of “Big Beast,” now more quietly worries over being “slain.”
“Southern Fried” pays tribute to southern hip-hop, with its clattering beat and Mike’s flows “sweeter than potato pie.” Mike name-drops MCs all over the record — from new pretenders to the throne like Ludacris to old-school legends like Slick Rick and Guru — so that he acts here as a musical historian. But this love of hip-hop and its legacy takes a fascinating turn on “Reagan.” The second half of the song focuses on institutional racism, on the legacy of Reaganomics and how it links to the Bushes and even Obama. But it’s the first verse, where Mike indicts himself and hip-hop, that’s truly arresting. He raps on how “we brag of having bread, but none of us are bakers” — which calls to mind a certain Chris Rock bit — but rather than complain about disparity, Mike calls out hip-hop for its role in it. “So it seems our people starve from lack of understanding,” he admits. “‘Cause all we seem to give them is some ballin’ and some dancing.” It’s an honest look at the culture of hip-hop, at its celebration of quick wealth and drugs, and even if, in the end of the song, he declares “I’m glad Reagan dead,” he’s not putting it all on the President. Instead, he sets up where this all started, but as much as he outlines the factors keeping black people down, the more incisive observation is how hip-hop — a vital part of black culture in America — has all too often failed its people.
Also interesting is how, on “Don’t Die,” he concerns himself with the legacy of the police. It’s a dirty-cop story, with the narrator getting badgered and eventually shooting one cop in the leg, but in between verses he yells, “Motherfucker, my dad was a cop” and calls the cop in his song a “disrespecting-the-badge-ass bitch.” No one here — even Reagan — gets unnecessarily demonized. Instead, what we get are legacies twisted by grabs for power, by injustice, by prejudice, into bastardizations of what they should be. Here Killer Mike aligns with true police officers, with those who do serve and protect, and takes aim at, not all cops, but corruption.
Killer Mike ends his album with the title track, which pays tribute to the history of black music — and, really, the origin of nearly all modern music — and its power. He name drops everyone from Miles Davis and John Coltrane to Curtis Mayfield and James Brown and, in the chorus, he proudly inverts his claim to the throne on the opening song. He wants his recognition, yes, but here he yields to the men who paved the way for him, who shaped his own sound. “This is jazz, this is funk, this is soul, this is gospel,” he spits, and brings it all under the heading of “player pentacostal.” Music, for Killer Mike, is a religious experience, it’s more than just spitting game. The import of the music — even at its most problematic and complex — comes across in every hard-spoken word on this record. Killer Mike, as he often is, sounds charged up and angry on R.A.P. Music, but under all that (and what we get in this last song) is the passion behind it, the recognition that music has been important for those Rebellious African People and, to do his part, Killer Mike takes his role in moving that legacy forward damn seriously.
Behind the boards, El-P, who also turns in a great verse on “Butane (Champion’s Anthem),” backs Killer Mike up with a brilliant set of beats that, in themselves, pay tribute to the history of hip-hop. He pares back his usually crowded, sci-fi dystopian beats into leaner cuts that capture southern hip-hop’s edge and the clear, brick-heavy beats of early hip-hop. The bass hits hard here, and El-P’s beats grind forward with taut power, and leave space for Killer Mike to also tap into some hip-hop tropes lyrically, like the old-school storytelling of “Jojo’s Chillin’.” El-P’s beats hold his typical ear for detail, from buzzing synths to cut-up voices, but they’re grimy and stripped-down, unassuming but muscled foundations for Killer Mike. This is his album, and El-P works perfectly in service to him all over this album.
R.A.P. Music is ambitious and incisive and frustrated and angry and serious. But it’s also charged with a vital energy, with the life of music that is — beyond all these heavy ideas — exciting to listen to. It gets your mind working, but first it thumps in your chest. This is the album that should give Killer Mike the respect he deserves. It’s his finest work yet, which is saying something, and the kind of record that will resonate for years not just because it’s reveres history, but because it understands it and isn’t afraid to demand answers from it. It is “hardcore G shit” without a doubt, but it’s also so much more than that. This is, indeed, player pentecostal.