The last decade has been busy for Killer Mike. From headlining festivals to campaigning for political and social change, the Atlanta rapper is a tireless man of industry. Of course, not every moment of this period has been sunny. In 2017 Killer Mike lost his mother, Denise, who was a huge influence on him in every aspect of his life. On his sixth studio album, Michael, Killer Mike reflects on the highs and lows of his life in what is his most personal album to date.
It’s been eleven years since Killer Mike has graced listeners with a solo project. Musically speaking, the last decade for Mike has been heavily focused on Run the Jewels with rapper/producer El-P. While some of the tracks feature the fierce lyrical cadence Killer Mike wields in RTJ, the majority of Michael is a sonic departure. Michael plays like a personal journal. It’s a mishmash of self-reflection, trash-talking, and social commentary.
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Never Tread Lightly
With its raw lyrical content and gospel production, Michael is something of a hood sermon that exemplifies Killer Mike’s best musical instincts. However, it also features some of his less-than-stellar tendencies. At times, Michael feels unfocused. Some of the tracks tend to wander away on idiosyncratic sonic detours that might leave some listeners feeling stranded. While these moments are few and far between, they are speedbumps for what is overall a smooth and satisfying ride.
In the opening track, “Down by Law” Killer Mike drops his thesis for the entire album. The track reflects on the current state of being a Black man in the United States. It’s a sobering look at how minuscule change only shifts social perspective, but never addresses systemic issues. Mike has never been one to mince words or stand on ceremony. He’s a raw nerve that scraps any notion of rap ephemera. There are songs on this album that will certainly endure.
Killer Mike's Words to Live By
The lyrics Mike spits hold a universal truth. They come from personal experience and never shy away from the dark subject matter. This might be the most prevalent on the track “Something For Junkies.” The song humanizes those who struggle with substance abuse disorder while warning the hazards of habitual drug use. Mike’s pragmatic view on the subject comes from his own history with family members falling down the holes of addiction.
The following track, “Motherless” delves into Mike’s loss of maternal figures in his life. The song is the second blow of a one-two emotional punch in the back half of Michael. Lyrically speaking, “Something for Junkies” and “Motherless” are the strongest tracks on the album.
Soulful Songs For A Wounded Heart
Legendary producer No I.D. handles the lion’s share of crafting the sonic landscape on Michael. Each track is gorgeously crafted in layers of gospel, soul, funk, and classic speaker-busting hip-hop. Tracks like “Two Days” play like musical gumbo, shifting sonically mid-track from a guitar-driven, high hat-riding beat to a full-blown gospel symphony. While some of these sudden shifts might be jarring to some listeners, they mostly provide a sonic variety that flows naturally throughout Michael’s 14 tracks.
In fact, most of the speedbumps Michael are its in-track interstitials. Some songs, even great ones, contain opening monologues or closing sonic explorations that don’t always make for a cohesive listening experience. At best, they act as unique transitions. At worst, they offer sonic dissonance that will have some hitting the “next song” button.
Regardless of some of its themes of isolation and loneliness, Killer Mike is anything but on Michael. He has a cavalcade of high-profile guests populating the tracks, including Future, Young Thug, and CeeLo Green. Some of the more notable guest spots come from longtime collaborators.
The track “Scientists & Engineers” features a rare appearance from the elusive rapper/multi-instrumentalist Outkast member, Andre 3000. Over twenty years ago, Killer Mike made his debut on Outkast’s Stankonia. Now, Andre showing up on Michael feels like a homecoming of sorts, a celebration of two kids from Atlanta continuously making great music. The other half Run the Jewels, El-P also makes an appearance on the track “Don’t Let the Devil.” With its soulful hook and boom-bap beat, it’s something of a departure from RTJ’s output, but it feels right at home on Michael.
Overall, Michael is a standout release in Killer Mike’s already impressive oeuvre. While the album can sometimes feel a bit bloated, its high points overshadow its gluttonous tendencies. Michael is an album about growth and living a storied life. Its lyrics are raw, honest, and often beautiful. Killer Mike continues to be a force of change and enlightenment in hip-hop, and Michael is a soulful example as to why that is.