Ask most Hip-Hop fans who’s been running the rap game the past three years, and the answers would mostly be the same; Kendrick Lamar…Drake…maybe some J. Cole. Even with somewhat of an agreement, there’s no science to this. There’s no exact formula of determining who is on top. Is it record sales? Some would say that, and that would justify the belief that Kendrick, Drake, or Cole are on top of the game. Using that logic however would leave justification of our culture up to whoever is buying music…whoever. Is Illmatic less of an album because it didn’t match the sales of Please Hammer, Don’t Hurt Em? Good luck finding someone to agree with that. Sales alone can’t be the determining factor, especially in today’s “I got it for free ninety-nine” climate. I’d argue that sales are a lot less important than most believe. Back in June of 2013 when J. Cole and Kanye dropped albums on the same day, Kanye edged Cole out in sales for the week, 327k to 297k, however, Mac Miller sold 102k with an incredibly solid album, Watching Movies with the Sound Off, except he did it independently. Who really won? It’s all relative. For any argument, there can be another. Who’s had the biggest impact on the game? Is it Kendrick? No names, but there were definitely some Good Kid, M.A.A.D City junior albums released since K Dot dropped his classic back near the end of 2012. However, it could also be said Migos or Meek Mill have been just as influential, as during that same period, we’ve heard their styles and sounds recycled ad nauseam. Is it who’s dropped the best music? As good as Kendrick and Drake’s last albums were, J. Cole has dropped two solid albums in that time period. There’s another name we haven’t mentioned yet that has been in the discussion for best rap album the past three years. While he may not have sold as many records as Kendrick, Drake, or Cole, his music has been getting played on television heavily. He even has the respect of some of your favorite emcees of all time. While the young guys have been doing a good job of carrying on tradition, it can be argued Killer Mike has had the best run of his career these past three years. Let's break it down.


For many, 2012 is going to be remembered as the year Kendrick Lamar released his major label debut, Good Kid M.A.A.D. City, but that year featured so much more. In 2012 we were introduced to Azealia Banks and Trinidad James with 1991 and Don't Be S.A.F.E. respectively. 2 Chainz and Big K.R.I.T. dropped their major label solo debut albums with Based on a T.R.U. Story and Live from the Underground. MMG's rising super star Meek Mill dropped his major label debut Dreams and Nightmares, while the 'boss" Ricky Rozay dropped his project, God Forgives, I Don't. Outside of Kendrick's major label debut, TDE released two other projects with ScHoolboy Q's Habits and Contradictions, and Ab-Soul's Control System. Even with all those releases, near the end of 2012 there were plenty of debates about which album was better, Kendrick’s debut, or Nas’ Life is Good. While time and hindsight have silenced those debates, a stronger argument could have been made for Killer Mike’s R.A.P. Music. While Kendrick’s concept based album was almost universally applauded, Killer Mike’s R.A.P. Music bar for bar was on par with anything that was released in 2012. As socially conscious as he is aggressive lyrically, cuts like “Reagan” should have reminded those longing for the days of Public Enemy that hard-hitting socially conscious music is still here. As much as Killer Mike brought to the table, R.A.P. Music also marked the beginning of the working relationship between Mike and El-P, with El-P handling the production for the album’s entirety. Mike got T.I. and Bun B to rap over tracks from El-P, something that worked well, but most of us probably would have never predicted what would happen. Critically, R.A.P. Music ranked 3rd out of all Hip-Hop albums on Metacritic (a site that averages reviews from legitimate outlets), coming behind only Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid M.A.A.D. City and Skyzoo’s A Dream Deferred.


2013 was a year that featured a lot of high profile releases. While Jay-Z, Kanye West, Eminem, Drake, J. Cole, Big Sean, Pusha T, and Wale all dropped albums, they didn't necessarily meet the expectations set by their previous work. 2013’s highlights came more frequently from newcomers and indie artists like Tyler the Creator, Chance the Rapper, and Joey Bada$$. The growth shown by Chance the Rapper and Joey Bada$$ on their second mixtapes Acid Rap and Summer Knights was on par with the maturity shown by Tyler, the Creator on his second album, Wolf. Juicy J dropped StayTrippy, while Chief Keef was Finally Rich. Two of New York’s favorites Roc Marciano and Action Bronson dropped solid projects with The Pimpire Strikes Back and Blue Chips 2, while another NY emcee, Troy Ave, “restored the feeling” with two projects New York City: The Album and White Christmas 2. A strip of Los Angeles County, from Inglewood to Leimert Park shined with releases from Skeme (Ingleworld), Nipsey Hussle (Crenshaw) and Dom Kennedy (Get Home Safely). Jamla’s Rapsody dropped a feature heavy project She Got Game, and held her own with everyone on every track. We were introduced to Migos with Young Rich Niggas, and we were reintroduced to OF’s Earl Sweatshirt with his project, Doris. People loved Old Danny Brown, and ASAP Ferg dropped his solo project, Trap Lord. Still, with all the releases, high-profile, indie, mixtape and other, three headlines overshadowed most of the year, Kendrick Lamar’s “Control” verse, Drake’s album, Nothing Was the Same, and the infamous June 18th release date showdown. June 18th marked the release of J. Cole’s Born Sinner, Kanye West’s Yeezus, and Mac Miller’s Watching Movies with the Sound Off. While the first-week sales of the previous week’s releases were a major topic of discussion, June 25th saw the relatively quiet release of Run the Jewels, the collaborative album between El-P and Killer Mike. While the chemistry between El-P and Mike improved, Run The Jewels also found El stepping in front of the mic for the album’s entirety. The rhymes were on point, the beats were hard, the social commentary was there, and El-P’s dark sense of humor was there as well. While R.A.P. Music had an El-P appearance on the track "Butane", the surprise of a full collaborative project from the Brooklyn and Atlanta natives was probably only matched by the surprise of how extremely well it turned out. Although El-P had previous experience being a member of a group with Company Flow, Killer Mike had been kicking it as a solo artist for 13 years. Even when he made appearances on albums from some of the largest Hip-Hop artists of all time, he clearly stood on his own, and stood his own. The chemistry between Mike and El on Run the Jewels was that of a duo who had been rhyming together for years. With all the releases from big name major label artists, Run The Jewels was tied (with Chance the Rapper’s Acid Rap) for the highest critically reviewed Hip-Hop album on Metacritic that year. 


2014 marked a lot of complaining about quality of music and the culture. Ironically, 2014 saw 3 albums review higher than anything released in Hip-Hop in 2013. Despite the whining, the year did see some quality Hip-Hop releases. Isaiah Rashad dropped what was probably the best of all TDE projects released in the year, Cilvia Demo. We got solid products from veteran groups with Atmosphere’s Southsiders and Dilated People’s Directors of Photography. Def Jam delivered with two solid projects from the West Coast in Vince Staple’s Hell Can Wait, and YG’s My Krazy Life, while also dropping Common’s Nobody’s Smiling. Rapper/producer collabo albums were all the rage with Freddie Gibbs and Madlib coming together for an amazing album,(Cocaine) Piñata, while Evidence and Alchemist came together as the Step Brothers, for their album Lord Steppington, and Royce Da 5’9 and Premier dropped PRhyme. The year closed out with a string of solid projects, including J. Cole’s 2014 Forest Hiills Drive and Ghostface’s 36 Seasons. Run The Jewels returned with RTJ2, and again, Mike and El-P reviewed the highest out of all Hip-Hop albums (with Big K.R.I.T.’s Cadillactica and Flying Lotus’ You’re Dead! tied for a close second place). While 2013’s Run the Jewels project was released by Fool’s Gold, RTJ2 was released by Mass Appeal, a label backed by Nas himself. While R.A.P. Music saw features from T.I. and Bun B, and Run the Jewels saw features from Big Boi and Prince Paul, RTJ2 featured Travis Barker, Gangsta Boo and Rage Against the Machine’s Zack de la Rocha. As solid as Run the Jewels was, RTJ2 was even more polished. Even non Hip-Hop outlets couldn't deny it, with it landing in Rolling Stones top 10 albums of the year, and Pitchfork declaring it the top album. Not top Hip-Hop album, top album period. As vocal as Mike has been on the mic, (see what I did there?) what he had to say outside of the booth was just as important. With the social climate getting hot in the wake of issues like the Mike Brown homicide in Ferguson, and Eric Garner situation in New York (among others), Mike made multiple appearances on cable news networks (CNN and Fox). While the some celebrities spoke up and were out of their element, or made appearances than seemed more marketing ploy than genuine, Mike's efforts were unquestionable. The son of a police officer, Killer Mike was speaking on issues like police brutality far before it was a hot button, ratings driving topic for mainstream media.

We are halfway through the first month of 2015 and we already know Run the Jewels 3 is happening. Turn on your TV and Killer Mike's music is no longer limited to music channels, or Adult Swim (which played a large role in connecting Mike and El-P) Run the Jewels instrumentals are being used for NFL Playoff commercials. Not only has Killer Mike been on a strong run, he’s been doing it without chasing trends or any massive makeover to who he has been as an artist. Not too shabby for someone who would be considered in an older artist in what’s considered a young man’s game. If RTJ3 continues the pattern of the past two Run the Jewels projects, the only artist we could consider to be close to Mike would be his partner in rhyme, El-P, who released a solid solo project himself back in 2012, Cancer 4 Cure.