Few would have imagined that one of the most powerful and acclaimed protest songs of the year, “Reagan,” would be about the Iran-Contra scandal of the 1980s, name-check Oliver North and feature the final words, “I’m glad Reagan’s dead.”
Decades old geopolitical scandals aren’t exactly hot topics among the Facebook generation. Even fewer would have predicted that the song would arrive via a 37-year-old Atlanta rapper called Killer Mike who’d been through the major label system a decade earlier but had since virtually vanished from the national hip-hop conversation while the next generation staked its claim. But now his mature, inventive new album, “R.A.P. Music,” released by the Adult Swim network’s Williams Street imprint, has propelled him from the dungeon to the mainstream.
That sort of thing seldom happens in hip-hop, which in its 30-plus-year history has placed a higher value on youthful energy than aged wisdom. In a genre that Public Enemy’s Chuck D accurately described as “the black CNN,” most of the innovation has come from cub reporters in their teens and 20s; few have been the MCs who have jumped into consciousness after hitting 35. There’s a reason why more rappers have monikers beginning with the slang “Lil” (Wayne, Kim, Boosie, Bow Wow, B and Debbie) than there are Ol’ Dirty Bastards.
But this year, a number of the best albums, tracks and verses have come from seasoned yet lesser-known rappers such as Mike “Killer Mike” Render, whose “R.A.P. Music” shows an artist hitting his stride. That it was produced by longtime rapper-producer-former label head El-P, also 37, is notable. El-P’s new album, “Cancer 4 Cure,” reveals a talented musician also hitting an artistic milestone 10 years after his classic solo debut “Fantastic Damage” created buzz in the indie-rap underground and 15 years after he co-founded the rap group Company Flow. (The two perform together at the Echoplex on Thursday night.)
The now ubiquitous rapper 2 Chainz, 35, burst onto the same hip-hop charts that eluded him when he was 28 and his name was Tity Boi (then again, maybe it was the name . . .). The 35-year-old Pusha T’s recent work with Kanye West (35) has matured in ways that few would have expected when his career stalled after releasing “Hell Hath No Fury” as a 29-year-old co-founder of the Clipse. Add in the highly anticipated new album by respected veteran Nas, 38, whose recent tracks sound more energetic and vital than anything he’s done in a decade, and hip-hop’s relationship with age seems to be evolving along with the music.
If history is any guide, this shouldn’t come as a surprise. Jazz turned 30 around the time that Miles Davis and John Coltrane started pushing it in new, post-bop directions. Each was then in his 20s, but both kept expanding the definition of the music as they grew older. Davis, in fact, released some of his most controversial and innovative music after he hit 40 in 1966. In a January 1968 interview with writer Arthur Taylor, Davis, then 41, expressed frustration with the state of jazz as it and he were hitting middle age.
“(All) those records they make nowadays ... the guys copy off the records, so they don’t have anything original,” said Davis. “You can’t find a musician who plays anything different. They all copy off each other. If I were starting out again, I wouldn’t listen to records. I very seldom listen to jazz records, because they all do the same thing.”
This was around the time he began fusing funk, rock and jazz to create some of his most polarizing and adventurous music. Coltrane died at age 40, a year after releasing the cosmic free-jazz masterpiece “Ascension,” prompting one to wonder where his music would have traveled had he lived a few more decades.
Yes, there are outliers, the most obvious being Jay-Z, who at 43 is the most popular and successful rapper in the world. That he’s at his pinnacle of fame is commendable, but the same can’t be said for his sense of artistic adventure — especially considering that at the same age, Davis released “Bitches Brew” and blew a lot of fans’ minds. It’s hard to imagine Jay-Z doing the same this year.
Snoop Dogg has also somehow remained relevant at age 40, but he’s accomplished that not by pushing at hip-hop’s boundaries but by adapting to its evolutionary advances. Raucous party rapper E-40 is as popular as ever at age 44, but mostly because he remains on message — girls, weed, drink, riding — and has built a virtually indestructible sound. The murders of superstars Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls in the ‘90s are doubly tragic when you contemplate the musical advances never made.
In this context, the recent (completely unsubstantiated) rumor involving Kanye West making a record entirely of sounds drawn from animals can only be encouraging for those advocates of the genre’s evolution (even if it’s an aesthetically dubious proposition).
Not that Killer Mike is a proponent of unchecked hip-hop expansion. On “R.A.P. Music,” he strongly — and wrongly — rails against the current trend of dance rap, ignoring the fact that the moment the genre stops growing is also the moment that the music becomes a modern day version of ragtime. Even if he did declare that “rap is dead” on a song by the same name in 2003 (five years before Nas did the same), as a rapper, Mike has never sounded more relevant, dipping back into his decades of experience and name checking not only Ollie North, but on “Go!” also sampling a snippet of the early hip-hop group the World’s Famous Supreme Team and name-checking ‘80s female rappers JJ Fad, ‘90s Pomona crew Above the Law and early ‘90s R&B singer Michel’le.
As impressive as Killer Mike’s rhyme skills are on “R.A.P. Music,” the record is also his most musically innovative since his first, which was executive-produced by fellow Dungeon Family members Outkast. That record garnered one catchy but forgettable hit, “A.D.I.D.A.S.”; in the intervening years, his releases showcased an able rapper less interested in the genre’s indie fringes.
But by hooking up with producer Jaime “El-P” Meline — Mike sounds like an enthusiastic teen when he proudly declares between tracks, “This album was created entirely by Jaime and Mike” — Killer Mike has hitched his verbal skills to a musician who’s unafraid to push the sound of hip-hop forward. Beats and rhythms stutter and jump; mysterious analog synth lines float nebulously in the background, adding a level of doom that locks in with Mike’s lyrical attitude. At its best, the pair ride on heavy grooves that not only sound shockingly new but also ultra catchy.
That’s something El-P has always done, though, even if his incursions have in the past made more of an impression in indie rap circles than with the mainstream. On “Cancer 4 Cure,” though, the Brooklyn-born artist has found his voice again. Having shuttered his acclaimed label Def Jux in 2010, El-P seems to have since devoted more time to has craft.
The album’s opener, “Request Denied,” immediately signals a change. Unlike the syrupy, gloomy sounds that typified his early work, the track’s music sounds like futuristic drum n’ bass, coupled with frantic percussion, thick organs and the kind of adventure worthy of a living genre whose recent forays into rapid beats-per-minute thumpers may be redirecting the music, but only in the most superficial of ways.
But Killer Mike best captures the reason for his artistic vision in his album’s title track. Backed with an urgent, futuristic El-P beat that feels downloaded from 2018, the rapper in the song’s verse describes all the music that hip-hop contains, from funk to soul to rap and jazz, and then offers a list of musicians worthy of admiration.
Few among those he cites are artists interested in stasis. He name-checks, among others, Robert Johnson, Nina Simone, Sade, James Brown, Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder and Outkast. He also cites, notably, two primo jazz works: Miles Davis’ “Bitches Brew” and John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme.” Exactly.