“AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted” has gone down in history as the record on which Ice Cube teamed up with the Bomb Squad and on which, lyric-wise, he went from street irascibility to politics, thoughtfulness and social consciousness. But apart from all that, his solo debut was key in the MC's career because it proved Cube to be a brilliant rapper, capable of leaving his comfort zone. He revealed he was able to postulate a discourse with intent - serious and mature - arguments needed by critics (and part of the public) in order to take him seriously as a writer and authorised voice. “AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted” wasn't a political piece in the most traditional and orthodox sense of the sub-genre, but it did hold a lyrical concept that showed real concern with the situation of the African-American community. Furthermore, it voiced his concern with the expressive particularities of a writer who had managed to channel his existential rage with sound judgement and more ideological resources.
Killer Mike is on his way to do something very similar with “R.A.P. Music”, and not only because the album is entirely produced by El-P - which means his sound radically changes (as coincidentally El-P is the modern-day producer who is closest to the sound of the Bomb Squad) - but also because of the lyrical content. The Atlanta rapper has a long trajectory in Southern rap, but only now will many start to take him seriously and see him as something more than just another Outkast substitute. That is how his magnificent debut was perceived, 2003's “Monster”, an album that came out at the height of the media attention for the dirty South, when we were experiencing a tidal wave of releases from a scene hungry for notoriety and influence. The real revelation came last year, with “PL3DGE”; not only his best work up to that point, but also secretly one of the best albums of 2011, not to mention one of the titles that best reflected the socio-political situation in the USA in real time. Mike has always stood out for his cunning and socially conscious lyrics, but “PL3DGE” showed the blooming conscience of a meddling and fussy rapper who knew how to take on important issues without preaching.
On “R.A.P. Music”, Killer Mike continues on his politicised and combative journey; but it’s not like a war cry (Dead Prez, Paris), nor an existential (Chuck D) or artistic (Common, Mos Def) doctrine, but rather an emotional passage. He isn't a political rapper, he's a social commenter, and that difference is important. The main achievement of this album is how its maker uses some elements of conscious rap to orchestrate a heart-felt and deep immersion in his geographical (Atlanta), personal (family and surroundings) and creative (hip-hop) community. Three examples: “Big Beast” is a sharp declaration of love to Atlanta, somewhat bitter and ill-tempered (“Welcome to Atlanta / up your jewellery, motherfucker! These monkey niggas looking for some Luda and Jermaine / And all a nigga found was a Ruger and some pain”); “Untitled” is a lucid and complex tribute to the women in his life - his wife, his mother and his grandmother (“The Lord give a load / you got to carry it like Mary did / That's why I'm giving honor to all these baby mommas / It takes a woman's womb to make a Christ or Dalai Lama”) - in a song that is more socially conscious than many a gratuitous call to arms and revolution; and “R.A.P. Music” is one of the best hip-hop tracks about hip-hop in recent times, a well-constructed namedropping exercise disguised as an interesting religious parable.
Even when Killer Mike sounds more like a conventional political commenter, he doesn't use the genre's commonplaces and looks for his own idiom and personality. “Reagan” uses some stereotypes already exploited in the history of rap, but his use of the conspiracy theories (the Illuminati again?) through this trip to the past offers some striking lyrics (“Ronald Reagan was an actor, not at all a factor / Just an employee of the country's real masters / Just like the Bushes, Clinton and Obama / Just another talking head telling lies on teleprompters / If you don't believe the theory, then argue with this logic / Why did Reagan and Obama both go after Qaddafi”). Furthermore, his invitation to self-criticism is courageous (“So it seems our people starve from lack of understanding / ‘Cos all we seem to give them is some balling and some dancing / And some talking about our car and imaginary mansions / We should be indicted for bullshit we inciting”) - he openly attacks the indulgence and lack of implication and vision of part of the African-American community; it is very powerful and contagious.
El-P's role in the production has more weight than we had presumed. First of all, because of the different sound he applies to the rapper's discourse. The latter seems to feel comfortable with (and motivated by) the noisy music - baroque and bulging - delivered by the former Company Flow member. It’s something like a claustrophobic and experimental version of post-Outkast Southern rap, which, despite the make-up and novelty in its forms, keeps the connections with the geographical and cultural roots of the MC at all times. It doesn't sound Southern in the most conventional sense of the word, but it has all the ingredients and recognisable characteristics of the scene - only with a Bomb Squad varnish that injects aggression and intimidation into the whole. The usual brew of distorted bass, hazy guitars, chaotic sounds and subterranean melodies that characterises El-P's sound is given a more flowing and immediate dimension here. The balance between beats and rhymes is exemplary. Secondly, and perhaps even more importantly, the high voltage of the sound seems to be the ideal soundtrack for the infuriated, bitter and emotionally convulsed Killer Mike, who analyses and reveals his surroundings with surgeon-like precision and warrior-like intensity.
The best thing that can be said about “R.A.P. Music” is that it's a courageous record. Lyrically, because it talks about conflicts and social and political themes without falling into clichés. Musically, because it poses a big challenge: to integrate a sound that initially seems far removed from the rapper's expressive coordinates (that chaotic and intimidating world created by El-P), making it sound like it's not the first time he has does it. And artistically, because it's the definitive rise of an excellent rapper in a permanent state of progression and growth. He needed to come up with an album this transcendent and heavy to present himself to the world, or at least to those who didn't know him, as one of the most complete players on the present hip-hop scene.