Killer Mike
Photo: Jonathan Mannion / biz3

Killer Mike Returns to His Roots on Triumphant ‘MICHAEL’

Part autobiography and homage to the city that made him, MICHAEL is a lushly-produced and defiantly Southern hip-hop album from Atlanta rapper Killer Mike.

Killer Mike
Loma Vista Recordings
16 June 2023

If there’s one word to describe Killer Mike, it’s unapologetic. Since going from underground obscurity to global acclaim, the Atlanta rapper has remained outspoken on wax and off. From racism to gun ownership, political campaigns to business ventures, Michael Render has not been tamed or quieted by success. He remains as vocal as ever on MICHAEL, but this time ready to explore his past, shortcomings, and triumphs. 

Killer Mike’s first solo outing in a decade would always be something of a homecoming. Despite a co-sign from hip-hop giants OutKast in 2000, it took a serendipitous pairing with Brooklyn producer and rapper El-P for Killer Mike to break through to the big time. The duo they formed, Run the Jewels, would surpass either of their solo efforts, achieving critical and commercial stardom and the kind of cultural crossover not seen since Wu-Tang Clan or, perhaps more appropriately, Run DMC. 

While Killer Mike hardly hid his Southern background with Run the Jewels, MICHAEL allows him to revisit his roots, lyrically and musically. Part autobiography and homage to the city that made him, MICHAEL is a lushly-produced and defiantly Southern hip-hop album, pulling from gospel and trap, Dungeon Family, and Three Six Mafia, and featuring a stacked list of local legends such as Andre 3000, Future, Ceelo Green, Young Thug, 2 Chainz, and even Jagged Edge. 

“DOWN BY LAW” opens with Killer Mike’s typical ‘kick-in-the-door’ delivery. “Hello, my n*****,” he booms over massive horns before breaking into a two-minute declaration of intent, offering advice and warnings for his contemporaries and community and detailing his background and misguided past. “It was just business, my n***** / I am not vicious, my n***** / I had no vision my n*****,” Killer Mike admits, but also contemplates that better things lay ahead for him in that “even in my days of whippin’ the hard, I’ll tell the devil that Black man is God”.

Spirituality is MICHAEL‘s key theme, particularly Killer Mike’s relationship with God and the church. In “SHED TEARS”, Killer Mike reflects on poverty’s pain, inability to feed his family, and doubting his ability to be a parent. “Every week somethin’ hittin’ me adversely, I remember dropping my babies off at the church nursery, I remember sittin’ hurt all alone in the church service, asking God to reveal me a plan and a higher purpose.” 

The features are stronger on “NRICH”, with Eryn Allen Kane’s impassioned call-to-arms of a chorus in “run up them millions, then build a village / Then make your own rules, fuck what they told you / Don’t let them own you.” 6LACK fits well musically and lyrically with his singing-rapping delivery of lines like “pray all my n***** organize and strategize / Enemies are lurkin’ round the way like camouflage.” 

By contrast, Young Thug, who has never been known as a ‘conscious’ rapper, delivers a rather paint-by-the-numbers verse about Margiela and Patek on “RUN”, albeit in his own unique, love-it or hate-it way. But the appearance of Dave Chappelle on the track is particularly questionable. Killer Mike cannot be ignorant of Chappelle’s transphobia. While it would be unreasonable to make the rapper guilty by association, the comedian’s appearance in a song about fighting for justice and equality seems highly misguided.

“TALK’N THAT SHIT” is a standout, with Killer Mike switching up flows on a hard-edged Southern banger from Three Six’s DJ Paul. Name-checking everyone from Pimp C, Juvenile, and the producer’s late half-brother Lord Infamous, Killer Mike is at his braggadocious best, calling out haters and asserting his authority. Killer Mike’s lyrics are simple but felt over three separate flows and a superb beat switch. “If I said it, I meant it / I meant it like I said it cause I said what I said / Understand?” 

MICHAEL is a terrific work from Killer Mike. Personal, spiritual, revelatory, open, proud, triumphant, and above all else, undeniable, unshakeable, and fiercely independent. Killer Mike’s step away from Run the Jewels shows how far he’s come, how much he has grown, and how much he can still accomplish. It’s an essential listen from a rapper at the top of his game and deserving of it.

RATING 8 / 10