Killer Mike is back with his first solo album since R.A.P. Music, an album we’ve talked about before at length. How does it go? Well, we got 2600+ words on exactly that. This is a long review so I’ll keep this intro as short as I can, but I want to lead with the fact that we – non-Black individuals – are reviewing Black art which comes with some complications and understandings. We don’t purport to be experts on anything outside of our own experiences. We only wish to (respectfully!) comment on and show a deep love to a craft that’s celebrating its 50th birthday this year. Me and Dan are big fans of hip-hop and Killer Mike so it’s with those understandings that we go into this review and talk about what we like and love. As always, we very much recommend you seek out other, more capable voices on the subject besides us, particularly Dead End Hip Hop‘s review of MICHAEL, as well as F.D Signifier‘s discussion on the album and Killer Mike in general.
Dan: Killer Mike said a lot of rad shit in rad ways on MICHAEL. To decompress all that rad shit, me and David teamed the fuck up dig in. What’s up David? How are we feeling about MICHAEL?
David: You know, I’m feeling pretty great about it. There were a lot of expectations on this album given Killer Mike’s history of hard-bodied, personal rap and I feel like the only expectation he bothered to meet on it was being a great rapper and artist. Everything else felt surprising at first, though in retrospect it’s not very out of the blue – MICHAEL feels like a complete love letter to Black Atlanta life and culture, on his terms, through his lens. Still, it’s managed to be pretty polarizing depending on who you ask. What about you?
Dan: Honestly I expected to be disappointed. None of the singles really moved me. I felt “RUN” was an amazing Young Thug feature, but Mike seemed too relaxed, and I couldn’t understand what I was listening to (This changed after listening to the whole project). “TALK’N THAT SHIT!” did not impress me, and “DON’T LET THE DEVIL” is a gimme because Run The Jewels kinda kill everything. I was wrong, though. I adore this album. Killer Mike has always largely been misunderstood politically, and I feel MICHAEL does a great job of indicating his political ideologies, which are staunchly Pro-Black. For some reason, this positioning doesn’t pass the Internet’s political purity test, and the criticism of his position and character are largely misguided, but Mike hasn’t ever involved himself in the concerns of his character. He’s above all a humanist, and I think this album reflects those sentiments clearly.
David: Yeah, I feel all of that, especially the hesitation with the singles. I wasn’t gripped until “MOTHERLESS”, then I was like ‘ah, all right, I’m sold’. If there’s one thing I will be up front about, it’s that I like the radical Mike the most. I love “Don’t Die” Mike, I love “JU$T” Mike, “Kill Your Masters” Mike – we don’t really get that here to that level, but there’s touches of him knocking on the walls of institutions in MICHAEL. Like you said, he’s more concerned with a humanist approach, big-upping his people and community, showing his trials and tribulations, and how they led to where he’s at now. It all traces back to the album art which has a cute picture of young Mike on it with a halo and nubby devil horns. It’s not a profound statement, but it does show the moral complexity of his life and humanity in general. This is, in his own way, for the people.
Dan: I love this trend with rap records. Lil Wayne was onto something with Tha Carter 3, and it’s fucking rad it’s stuck for as long as it has. I feel you on Mike when he’s on his aggro shit. His voice exudes so much strength, and I wasn’t feeling that energy until I played “DOWN BY LAW”. I immediately got hooked on that soulful sample with Mike just hyping everything the fuck up, then immediately heading right into “SHED TEARS” where the energy just absolutely carries over without taking a breath. That was cathartic, made me happy my expectations were wrong, and erased my doubt. That also sets up “RUN” nicely in full context. I have a lot to share on that track specifically, but before I do, I’m curious what you thought about it?
David: I do think “RUN” is a wonderfully motivational track. The church organ in the intro, Dave Chappelle giving a pep talk to Mike, and the rest of the song has this energy of perseverance about it. I get it and I like it, but it’s also probably my least favorite song on the whole album. Really like what Young Thug did on it though, and because of his inclusion it felt like this cross-generational acknowledgment that there’s still a lot of things to accomplish before any semblance of freedom, personal or otherwise, is achieved. What about you?
Dan: First off FREE YOUNG THUG, but I definitely agree it’s not Mike’s strongest effort. He’s subdued, and his lyrics are basic, however, taking into consideration Mike’s entire message is to uplift Black folk, and is a Black man, and that he sold this one track to Cadillac, puts it in a different perspective. So, Mike’s minor role on his own track seems more of him setting the stage, and clearing the way for Young Thug to shine. Essentially providing capitol to his legal struggles, give him some royalties to pay his legal bills, and show support for one of the most leading figures in modern hip-hop from Atlanta, Mike’s kingdom, essentially.
Mike has had trials and tribulations throughout his career, there’s even a lyric regarding how slow his suffering has been. Chappelle is the same. While I find his views on trans relations misguided and shortsighted, it’s hard not to listen when he discusses being a Black man in America. Young Thug shares a similar trajectory, as well. He’s currently locked up without a trial date, without a jury pool, on RICO charges that stem from lyrical material. Literally in jail for rapping. All three of these men are fighting for freedom in various ways, and together they’re running, fighting together.
The message also reminded me of Young Thug‘s track “Check” where he says ‘horses don’t stop, they keep going‘. It was the track that essentially put him on the map, and I think it’s rad as fuck that we have Chappelle giving Mike support, with Mike clearing the way for Young Thug to take the track with Thugger mentioning instilling and this message into his son. Black men in America are historically oppressed within our society, and finding community, support, and people that will have your back is important, and we essentially have three generations of Black men supporting each other, and their struggles. It’s awesome shit.
Its placement is interesting, as well given Mike rapping his ass off on the first two tracks to pump the brakes. As a single it got them paid, on the album it becomes a breath of fresh air, and a good change of pace, essentially letting Mike dive into more tender subject material. Simple song, with a lot of implications, essentially. Lastly, MOTHERFUCKING FREE YOUNG THUG.
David: Hell yeah, well said. There really is something to the saying that there are two Americas: a white one and a Black one, different rules for each. You don’t emotionally or cognitively get this sort of stuff unless you acknowledge that – you don’t have to understand it because some of us just flat-out can’t and won’t, but hip-hop is so much more of a fulfilling artistic monolith when you engage with empathy and an open mind. Along that line, I would never seek to police or chide a Black man for how he chooses to move through this wildly unfair and unjust world, at least in Western society. Free Thugger for sure.
This is an expert segue into the next track, “NRICH” (I’m sure many can assume what that stands for). It’s a total anthem to Black success and wealth, and using that to enact some real positive change. Mike comes hard on the first verse, uncompromisingly bold and resolute. He has some of my favorite ass-beating lines on this track:
‘I was in cahoots with the sp**ks that sat by master’s door
When the revolution let loose, they cuttin’ master’s throat
Ay, in the eighties as babies, we sold master’s dope
Labeled us a nuisance, they used the courts like noose and rope’
I also love 6LACK’s melodic contribution here and the hook Eryn Allen Kane provides:
‘Oh, run up them millions
Oh, then build a village
Oh, then make your own rules
Fuck what they told you, don’t let ’em own you
Black and bright, Black as night, Black and brilliant
Walk by faith, not by sight, stand resilient
Truth always comes to life, time reveals it’
What a beautiful song. One of my faves on here.
Dan: 6LACK feature on that is astounding, and a lot of the features on here are top tier. I had the privilege of seeing his set at the last ACL, and his entire set was clean. Obviously, Thugger’s feature is up there, but can we talk about “SCIENTISTS & ENGINEERS” for a minute? Future and Andre 3000 absolutely gave it their all, and it felt like such an ode to Atlanta. That track sticks out as a big highlight for me. I know you you’re a big OutKast fan. How did you feel hearing A3K?
David: I do love some OutKast/3 Stacks. His verse is great as one would expect, awesome if a little uniform flow, wordplay that went over my head for a while. Buuuuuut, Killer Mike was not outdone on his own song. I do think Mike stays very strong on his verse which is pretty rapid-fire and says quite a lot. All those double-time, lyrical miracle-ass rappers take note because this middle-aged dude just bodied your whole shit. Future was a nice bridge between the other two and I liked his line ‘it’s better to be an outcast in a world of enviers’ which was a nice double entendre nod to Andre and Big Boi. Atlanta as fuck, just like the rest of the album which has almost all Atlanta or at least Southern features on it. 2 Chainz’s is another pretty good one on “SPACESHIP VIEWS”.
Dan: You’re absolutely right about Mike. He let’s it be known it’s his track, and over delivers decimating expectations as usual. He delivers my favorite line on the entire album on that track, ‘Look at me bitch. Look at me, look at me, bitch. Look at the crook in me, bitch.‘ He delivers it with such cool acceptance of himself. It’s cool as shit. I think Curren$y does an amazing job on “SPACESHIP VIEWS”. His stoner slacker flow is so smooth, and fits anywhere well. Much like Future on “SCIENTISTS & ENGINEERS” 2 Chainz does a good job as connective tissue between Curren$y‘s flow, and Mike’s. It’s another hit on an album with very few flaws, and those flaws are hardly noticeable and totally forgivable.
David: Very true. I just wanna point out real quick that when Mike’s verse starts on “SPACESHIP VIEWS”, he sounds like Crank Lucas to me.
MICHAEL just has a great flow to it. There’s a couple songs I don’t feel AS much as others (surprisingly, I count “DON’T LET THE DEVIL” among this short list), but they all hit for different (or even similar) reasons. One thing I do wanna mention is the permeating gospel undercurrent of the whole album. Over half of the songs have choral vocals, church organs, samples, or other Down South-ass accouterments that make this album stand out (“SHED TEARS” and “MOTHERLESS” especially stick out). People were wondering why he broke from El-P’s production so much here and while I acknowledge this is the same dude that said ‘Producer gave me a beat, said it’s the beat of the year/I said ‘El-P didn’t do it so get the fuck outta here’’, Mike had a different mission here.
Mike’s very openly spiritual and upfront with his relationship to God and it really informs a lot of what he does and says, not to the point of straight-up preaching or excessive moralizing to me (and believe me, I know it when I see it because of my own mom), it’s just a firm, undisputable, unmovable part of who he is. It helps with emotional heft too (“SLUMMER” is a heartbreaker), and that mixed with taking this album back home to Atlanta is ultimately what made this album as special as it is.
Dan: I was just thinking about mentioning the gospel undertones. I’m a sucker for horn samples, and soul samples, so I was an easy winover with the live choir addition. Mike always finds innovative ways to shift his sound, especially in his later releases starting with PL3DGE, which is really the rebirth of his authenticity . Obviously R.A.P. Music carries a special places in our hearts, because of the curveball of the now legendary team up of Mike and El, but MICHAEL has such a beautiful introspective vibe to it. He’s tackling things in a clear eyed withhold no detail flow that is both human, and gut wrenching at times. The high point of all this are on tracks like “MOTHERLESS” and “SLUMMER”. ”SLUMMER” especially, because he’s just throwing everything sonically this project has to offer. It’s a wonderful confessional that resonates on a lot of emotional levels.
The tracks I have a hard time with I find growing on me. “TALK’N THAT SHIT” less than the others, but it’s kind of odd at this point to hear RTJ rapping over a beat like they do on “DON’T LET THE DEVIL,” but as I had mentioned before, it’s really hard to point out misses when these two are firing on all cylinders, or not. And while It’s not a standout as a single, it fits snugly on the back end of the album.
Before I speak on my favorite track (and the last one), I have to shout out to two more team up that I really enjoy. “TWO DAYS” has such a fun summer vibe about it. Just straight up freeway cruising vibes, and Ty Dolla $ign lays that chorus down with ease. He’s got one of my favorite voices in the modern R&B space, and really delivered on this hook. Also, Mozzy’s verse on “SHED TEARS” is a wonderful addition. I am not familiar with his material at all, but with this introduction I’ll definitely do some digging, and check out his other material. That gruff chilled out delivery reminds me of other down to earth chill as fuck rappers I enjoy.
David: I’m going to say something kind of wild… MICHAEL is the kind of stuff that Chance the Rapper should have been doing after Coloring Book. They’re very different people from different areas, I get it, but the difference is Killer Mike’s personal contemplations and life trajectory just hit a lot harder and probably relate to more people on a higher level. I don’t mean to elevate one person by talking down about another, but the (fictional) comparison just rang so loud for me after thinking about it for a while.
Anyway, yes, really loved Ty Dolla $ign on “TWO DAYS” – those wailing guitar samples(?) were awesome too, very classic/Southern rockish – and he was great on “HIGH & HOLY” too. Definitely enjoyed Mozzy’s contributions too, he offered some neat grit to an already intense track.
Dan: The last thing I want to highlight before I drop off is the album closer “HIGH & HOLY”. The entire confessional, introspections, and Black divinity Mike raps his ass off builds up to two things: being high and holy. It’s a statement only Mike can make, and in the way that he does. His catch phrases live rent free in your head so easy, and the chorus on this track just digs itself into my subconscious, and it’s a definitive Killer Mike statement to cap of a definitive Killer Mike project. What are your final thoughts?
David: I think we’ve covered just about all of it. This has been a long discussion, but it goes to show just how jam-packed Killer Mike made this album – it all needed to be mentioned. It’s one of the best hip-hop releases this year and honestly I wouldn’t expect anything less from someone who’s been in his bag for over a decade. If people go into this NOT expecting R.A.P. Music or Run The Jewels, they’ll be impressed because it’s still Mike as hell, but it’s very clear he’s in a different space right now and had a lot to say.