[22 August 2008]
The first installment of Killer Mike’s I Pledge Allegiance to the Grind series, released in 2006, felt like a classic album scattered among a bunch of promotional posse cuts from Mike’s Grind Time Rap Gang. His disciples were not bad by any means. His solo tracks were just so strong. Killer Mike’s presence on record is so commanding that guest verses only leave listeners salivating for his return. When guests contribute about half the raps for an album bearing his name as the principal artist, that’s a lot of yearning for a listener to endure. That issue must have been acknowledged, because I Pledge Allegiance to the Grind II feels much more like a true Killer Mike solo album than its predecessor did. His emceeing is also as potent as ever and guest verses have been kept to a level at which they only complement his power. The result is yet another great album in very promising summer for hip-hop.
Killer Mike is to the Atlanta trap what Ice Cube was to West Coast gang-banging and the Notorious B.I.G. was to the New York street hustle. Like those artists, Mike uses street narratives, based on real-life experience, in a viciously candid manner, showing incredible insight into the societal issues controlling his brutal environment. Like Ice Cube – who guests on “Pressure” in somewhat of a passing-of-the-torch moment – Killer Mike has a flair for militant politics. But his philosophies, rational and compassionate, can be most closely identified with those adopted by Malcolm X in the 10 short months between his Mecca pilgrimage, after breaking ties with the Nation of Islam, and his assassination. I Pledge Allegiance to the Grind II is mature, thought-out, intellectual D-Boy rap which, like Biggie or Cube at their best, can sound irresponsible and dangerous to the naive ear. If, at any point however, one of his raps seemingly contradicts his preaching, he returns to justify – often in spoken-word, moral-of-the-story song-outros – its inclusion and how it incorporates into the formation of a larger message.
Lyrical substance is not the only thing I Pledge Allegiance to the Grind II has going for it. Like any great politically minded emcee, Killer Mike understands that the most important aspect in getting any message across through rap is a forum of legitimately entertaining music. Sample-wise, this album generally sticks to the classic Southern aesthetic (dark organ and synthesizer chords, booming 808s, bouncing bass, screwed vocals, etc.) with occasional, generally successful forays into vocoded Euro-pop (“Can You Hear Me?”), hard West Coast piano keys (“Pressure”), and other styles. Varying drum patterns throughout the album allow Mike to showcase his exceptional ability, like his former mentor Big Boi, to adapt his flow to virtually any beat. Cadence-wise, I Pledge Allegiance to the Grind II has Mike switching between Southern double-time; New York 4:4; blunted, slow, West-Coast flow; and several other styles, all seemingly with ease.
Above all, what makes Killer Mike so powerful is his extraordinary presence as a public speaker. Combine his loud, commanding voice, extraordinary skills as an emcee, as well as the ability to objectively analyze his harsh upbringing, and what you have is a man who managed to find the perfect avenue to get his point across in the form of hip-hop music. This album is virtually devoid of pretension. While Mike possesses worlds of confidence, he is not self-righteous. He is able to acknowledge his flaws. He incorporates enough humor and accessibility into his music that one not looking for preaching can enjoy this record while completely ignoring his message. I Pledge Allegiance to the Grind II is quite easily the fullest realization and most essential example of Killer Mike’s overwhelming promise thus far. I can’t think of a better record to play for backpackers who perpetually deny the contributions of the South to rap music, for those who thought hip-hop died with Biggie Smalls, and for those who thought the genre’s integrity left the building with Public Enemy as they walked away from Def Jam.