Perhaps more than any producer save for the Bomb Squad crew members, El-P has very consciously avoided making records that come across as bipartisan. His sonic agenda has always very clearly been aimed towards hip-hop listeners of a peculiar faith, oftentimes to the point of being accused as nothing more than a noisemaker by those who prefer their rap music soundtracked by various Hitmen or diggers of crates.
Killer Mike, on the other hand, has made a career out of playing much the same role as a lyricist, carving out a niche that began with his I Pledge Allegiance to the Grind mixtape and established him as the premier heir to Ice Cube’s long vacant, angry gangsta party boy sociocommentator throne. But he’s rarely allowed the music that backs him to follow that muse, often openly and enthusiastically embracing whatever the current trends of Atlanta rap might be. That’s not to say that he hasn’t seen the stars align over an excellent album or two, but that his surprise marriage to El-P by way of Adult Swim’s boutique hip-hop label is a surprise that feels somewhat overdue. Perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that the union worked out as well as it has, considering the focus of the two men involved, but if you played Cancer for Cure and PL3DGE against each other it’d feel pretty unimaginable that El-P and Killer Mike would ever cross paths.
Biographical shock value aside, R.A.P. Music provides enough jaw drops on its own merits that it’s sure to be a record that comes to define 2010s hip-hop in some way. It opens with “Big Beast”, a track that would probably be saved for second or third on most records but here is thrust into the leadoff spot, dropping you right into R.A.P. Music‘s unrelentingly confrontational atmosphere without grace or subtlety. This is to music listening as Mike Tyson is to boxing, all fury and iron. Featuring two of the only guest raps on the record (Trouble also handles the hook, and El-P appears later on the accurately christened “Butane”), “Big Beast” is exactly that—when T.I. casually drops the line “Drankin’ on that Hennessey, blowin’ on that canibus, Amerikkka’s nightmare, trap nigga fantasy” and actually finds the rhythm to pronounce each of the k’s in that Ice Cube reference, not only is it awesomely gripping but further proof that for all T.I.‘s album gaffs he can bring a technicality to his performances that few of his peers can approach. That El-P’s beat is so distinctly southern in its brashness and yet maintains plenty of El-P touchstones is just icing on the cake.
In many ways, El-P bowing to the sound of Atlanta without compromising his desire to challenge is R.A.P. Music‘s greatest success story. “Go!” would have fit right in alongside Mike’s work on I Pledge Allegiance to the Grind II, while “Ghetto Gospel” cackles in the ears of those who would complain El-P is forever the soundtrack to white bread, coldly backpack-oriented abstraction. It’s a minor footnote that a man known for such derogatorily defined “white rap” has made such an extremely southern, black record, but it’s definitely an accomplishment that will dominate early sessions for folks intimate with his past works. But with the constantly transforming background details, squiggly synth basslines and AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted revivals like “Don’t Die” and “Reagan”, one would be very wrong to assume El-P held back from putting his foot in this album. He simply did it in a way that can only be defined as shockingly accessible, considering his oeuvre.
Killer Mike doesn’t shock listeners in quite the same way, but this is a guy who would have been eager to compare Barack Obama to Ronald Reagan on record with or without El-P. Playing up to the legacy of, say, Vast Aire or El-P’s other favored collaborators wouldn’t have done much for his career, and thankfully he takes the opportunity to rap over the finest music he’s ever had access to with more of the same. That means we get “Jo Jo’s Chillin’”, a consolidation of various men he’s met in the traps of Atlanta distilled into one character, who is fleeing Atlanta for New York, receiving a variety of humorous breaks on his way to smuggling drugs across state lines. It means “Anywhere But Here”, on which Mike deconstructs the so-called “black heavens” of New York City and Atlanta into the hotbeds for racial profiling and black-on-black violence that lie beneath the Gatsbian visions of greatness.
They declared the war on drugs, like a war on terror / But what it really did was let the police terrorize whoever / But mostly black boys, but they would call us niggas / And lay us on our bellies while they fingers on they triggers / They bruise us on our head, they dogs is on our crotches / And they would beat us up if we had diamonds on our watches / And they would take our drugs and money as they picked our pockets / I guess that’s the privilege of policin’ for some profits / But thanks to Reagonomics, prison turned to profits / Cause free labor’s the cornerstone of U.S. economics
That is just a prelude to an attack on America’s history with slavery and a total emasculation of every President of the United States.
It wouldn’t be a Killer Mike album without some lighthearted fun, though, which is where the El-P featuring track “Butane” comes in, with the two spitting title-nodding fire at unnamed comers. There’s also “Go!”, with Killer Mike’s loose, playful word association, and “R.A.P. Music”, on which he pays tribute to all manner of black entertainers who performed “Rebellious African People Music”.
His eagerness to play both sides of the field is pretty reigned in compared to on PL3DGE, though, as its highlights are very certainly the most rebelliously African on the record. Even more than the above-quoted “Reagan”, “Don’t Die” defines this record as the most visceral hip-hop album in years if not decades. That track may as well have been called “My Summer Vacation Part 2”, for all the venom it spews at the world around Killer Mike, with El-P’s gelatinous beat (it goes through at least four complete transformations) matching Mike’s vitriol step for step. It’s already easy to say it’s one of the records of the year and the track’s only existed in the public space for a week.
As if to prove Killer Mike’s anger is rooted in a positive place, to close the album not only does he pay tribute to all the musicians who inspired him, but also his recently deceased grandfather “Willie Burke Sherwood”. It’s a really touching way to close an album so often dedicated to pouring gasoline on everything, and adds a nice hint of kindheartedness to an album so often scoffing at the idea of playing nice. R.A.P. Music, a few slightly faulty hooks aside, is a definitive statement from Mike and a legacy changer for El-P. What more could anyone really ask for?