The duo of Killer Mike and El-P may not seem like a likely combination. In one corner you have an ATLien MC who has spent the last several years breaking out of the OutKast shadow with powerful, socially-conscious music. And in the other, you have a Brooklyn-bred beatsmith with distorted basslines and out-of-this-world samples and synths. In the interest of time, however, I'll let you know right from the jump that, Yes, this hip-hop odd couple does work to make one of 2012’s best albums. I'll also spare you the obvious Ice Cube and Bomb Squad comparisons because even T.I. drops a subtle reference to it in his verse on the lead single and album opener, “Big Beast.” But almost exactly a year after his Pl3dge album, which was hailed as one of the best albums of 2011, Killer Mike released “R.A.P. Music” the most focused opus of his career. (It was also released almost exactly 22 years after “AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted”, but who’s counting?)
If I had one gripe about Pl3dge, which I also had the opportunity to review last year, it was this: although the album consisted of brilliant tracks like “Burn” and “American Dream,” it was also bogged down with club-friendly tracks that didn't fit. Not to say that “Go Out on the Town” and “Ready, Set, Go” weren’t good songs (they were actually bangers), I just wanted to hear more songs like “That’s Life II.” With “R.A.P. Music” (which stands for Rebellious African People), my wish has been granted.
Mike spits every verse on the album with fierce, intense focus and doesn’t waste a single word throughout. He only shares time with T.I., Trouble and Bun B on the aforementioned “Big Beast” and El-P drops a verse on the epic and aptly titled, “Butane (Champion's Anthem).” The rest is all Mike and he raps like a man who's had enough. The final verse from “Untitled” could pretty much be his mission statement: “I don't trust the church or the government / Democrat, Republican, Pope or a bishop or them other men / And I believe God has sustained you with rap / So I pick a burning bush, put it in a Swisher wrap / And they can't kill a G, I seen how I die / I'm only going once, a coward dies a thousand times /And to that chariot come and take a nigga home / I'mma spit this ghetto gospel over all these gutter songs / I'm gone.”
Yes, Mike spends about half of “R.A.P.” covering political and social issues, but it never feels like he’s preaching at you. “Don’t Die” is probably one of the best songs about police corruption ever put on wax, and personally I can’t wait until Rush Limbaugh catches wind of “Reagan,” which has the potential to put Killer Mike on the list with NWA and Ice T as one of hip hop’s most controversial figures with lines like: “I leave you with four words: I'm glad Reagan dead”
What also makes “R.A.P” work is the flawless production. El-P does a masterful job at using his own futuristic style while also adapting to Killer Mike’s strengths. There’s a nice, subtle bounce to “Southern Fried,” one of the lighter tracks and a perfect summer jam. “Ghetto Gospel” is vintage El-P with distorted bass and a warm sounding synth during the hook. And he lays a perfect canvas to the desolate and bleak “Anywhere But Here,” for Mike to rap about the struggles facing black America. Mike and El-P may not have made a lot of sense on paper, but it’s clear they have great chemistry and they have pushed each other to make some of the year’s best music.
- Zach Gase