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For two-plus decades, Killer Mike has existed at the periphery of the mainstream’s perception of Atlanta rap, despite being widely acknowledged by fans within the culture as one of the scene’s most talented members. There was Mike’s association with Outkast, the forebears of Atlanta’s rise to national prominence, and his tag-team duo, Run The Jewels with El-P, opening a whole new market of festival appearances and hipster blogger love.
He was even given one of rap’s ultimate blessings; on Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 To Pimp A Butterfly standout “Hood Politics,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning Comptonite throws Mike a lyrical shout-out while denouncing the hypocritical elitism within the hip-hop community. “Critics want to mention that they miss when hip-hop was rappin’,” he rails. “Motherfucker, if you did, then Killer Mike’d be platinum.”
To hear Mike himself tell it, though, there’s another reason behind the lack of hardware denoting his sales achievements. “My first record deal damaged me,” he told Spin in an interview this year promoting Michael, his first solo album in over a decade. “It made me afraid, it pulled me back. I hadn’t done terribly on the major. I just, you know, I came out the same year as 50 [Cent] selling 10 million f*cking records. I sold, you know, 500,000.”
While going gold with your debut album (2003’s Monster, which features the millennial-era sex-rap favorite “A.D.I.D.A.S.”) is no small accomplishment, Mike became convinced he belonged on the underground circuit, where his rap prowess could lead to all the critical acclaim that pursuing greater sales goals might cost him. So, he became a bit trapped between the two worlds; a charismatic would-be star content to grind it out below the radar where his talents might be better appreciated.
In all of this, he admits, it seems he never quite got around to introducing the audience to Michael Render, the man behind the Killer Mike persona — and maybe that’s why he never connected with audiences the same way that Kendrick Lamar would, despite sharing his fiery resolve and unapologetic outlook toward presenting his unvarnished view of the world around him. And so, Michael, released Friday via Via Loma after Mike spent half-a-million dollars of his own money recording and producing it, attempts to do that, explaining how and why Killer Mike came to be, and what he’s truly capable of when not relegated to a sidekick or partner role.
First of all, Mike’s Dungeon Family DNA runs throughout the project; it opens with an appearance from CeeLo Green in “Down By Law” and flourishes on “Scientists & Engineers” with features from the elusive André 3000 and fellow wayward Dungeon cousin Future. The album also embraces Mike’s more recent forays into the chaotic doom funk of his longtime production partner El-P on “Two Days.” But the prevailing musical thread that ties Michael together is the gospel of his youth.
Beginning with the ferocious “Shed Tears” and continuing through the defiant “Run,” picking up in the maudlin “Motherless” and piercing through the production of the album in its haunting use of organs and clips of passionate sermons from Malcolm X, the influence of the South’s church-steeped culture undergirds Mike’s tearful reflections and assertive remonstrations as he recounts his evolution from nihilistic drug dealer to community leader and unofficial poet laureate of Atlanta.
There are slip-ups, of course. A questionable reference to Brokeback Mountain on “Talk’n That Sh*t” undermines Mike’s coalition rhetoric (hard to form a coalition if you’re still so committed to dehumanizing at least 10 percent of any group of people working toward a supposedly common goal; as a resident of the city with one of the largest LGBTQ populations in the nation, Mike should know better), and occasionally, his real-life actions, however well-intentioned, come off as contradictory of the revolutionary bars he rattles off on nearly every song.
But if you’re going to paint a picture of a person, their flaws are necessarily going to be part and parcel of the completed image. That Mike refuses to shy away from even the most unflattering self-portrayals are a huge reason why he’s got so much support from the artistic community and from critics. He’s showing us just who Michael Render is, even if that’s just something we’ve all always known.
Michael is out now on Loma Vista Records.