Album review: Killer Mike, 'R.A.P. Music'

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4 stars (our of 4)

The Atlanta MC and OutKast protégé Killer Mike (aka Michael Render) is a vocal chameleon with a fierce edge. On his concise, filler-free sixth album, “R.A.P. Music” (Williams Street), his tenacity and intelligence on the microphone allow him to invest almost any subject with urgency – from the lascivious (“Southern Fried”) to the literary (yes, he muses about the buzz he gets off books on “Willie Burke Sherwood”).

The album marks his first major collaboration with Brooklyn-based producer El-P, though the pairing doesn’t initially sound like a great idea: Killer Mike’s quirky Southern flavor wouldn’t seem to be a perfect match for El-P’s East Coast aggression. But the two artists bring out each other’s best. El-P’s vaunted kick drums sound absolutely huge, firing like cannons on the strutting introduction, “Big Beast.” His keyboards squirm, chatter and moan, distorted voices checking in from the next galaxy.

Together, Killer Mike and El-P celebrate the sheer pleasure of vintage hip-hop. Whereas “Jo Jo’s Chillin' ” embraces a woozy, laid-back twanginess, “Go” builds excitement with rapid-fire rhymes spilling out until a ferocious turntable scratch solo – it’s like 1988 all over again.

The album’s second half intertwines the personal and political tragedies of the last three decades in the African-American community. In “Reagan,” Killer Mike builds his case for why young urban blacks distrust government and religion. Its cold analysis morphs into paranoia and the street justice of “Don’t Die,” which explicitly invokes gangsta rapper Ice Cube’s 1990 masterpiece, “AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted.”

A sense of abandonment overwhelms “Ghetto Gospel,” which turns the community celebration of gospel music into a lonely litany -- “O Lord … Jesus … glory” – that is delivered with increasing numbness and resignation. “Anywhere But Here” references the 1999 slaying of Amadou Diallo in New York by four police officers, an elegy shrouded in synthesizer gloom.

The closing title track provides redemption. “Rap music is my religion,” Killer Mike declares, and with “R.A.P. Music” he’s added a must-hear chapter to the hip-hop bible.

greg@gregkot.com

 

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