Amidst all the rap and hip-hop records of the last two decades or so that contain "skits", endless guest appearances and too many tracks, it's easy to forget that there are some artists who stick to traditional album formats: no filler, guest appearances kept to a minimum, the music kept brutally stripped back. It's no coincidence that these records are the ones that stand the test of time, from Company Flow's Funcrusher Plus, Cannibal Ox's The Cold Vein and Nas' Illmatic to name but three, even Tyler's Goblin if we're to take something from recent memory - no matter what you think of some of the lyrical content. Atlanta's Killer Mike follows a similar path; he’s neither genre superstar nor new kid on the block, and R.A.P. Music is his sixth album and its brilliant efficiency might finally see him get the recognition his long service deserves.
A long-time collaborator with OutKast, Killer Mike released his debut album in 2003 and came close to a crossover hit with 'A.D.I.D.A.S' which featured a cameo from old mate Big Boi, but it's this record produced by El-P (himself with a stunning rap album under his belt in 2012) that should see the forceful MC in many end-of-year lists. El-P's solo production is lean and mean, all brutal basslines, twisted beats and earsplitting 808s, bringing the Bomb Squad's approach right up-to-date 21st century style, and perfectly matches Killer Mike's punchy delivery that focuses (mostly) on political and social commentary. It's one of the few guest appearances that actually encapsulates the feel of Shocklee and Co's finest work in verse, when T.I. laconically rhymes on opening track 'Big Beast': "Drankin’ on that Hennessey, blowin’ on that cannabis, Amerikkka’s nightmare, trap nigga fantasy" It also brings together southern groove and west and east coast flow, but T.I's appearance is still upstaged by Mike's angry verbal blows as he blasts away about "hardcore G shit" backed by El-Producto's powerful beasts. While that opening focuses on grandstanding, it's on a track like album centrepiece 'Reagan' where Mike truly comes into his own. An assault on the system, he doesn't keep his rage aimed at Republican politics as he barks "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." It's an attack on the policies of the 1980s and on those who continue to perpetuate them into the 21st century, whether it's police brutality or war for oil: "if you don't believe the theory / then argue with this logic /why did Reagan and Obama both go after Gaddafi? / we invaded sovereign soil /goin' after oil."
I need to take a moment to talk about the rapping on this album; while El-P's mutated, brain-damaging NYC beats are undoubtedly a highlight (as is his guest spot rhyming on 'Butane') it's been a long time since I've heard such effortless flow from an MC. Every rhyme snaps with precision and while there's anger on almost every track it's never unfocused and Killer Mike never steps out of time with the music. His politicised rapping takes us back to the days of N.W.A, especially on 'Don't Die' where Mike describes bent cops coming into his home and dishing out rough justice: "then they got to punchin' and kickin' and macin' / Then the whole situation went Larry Davis."
However, it's worth pointing out that despite the rage, Mike's got a bit of heart and soul; final track, the titular 'R.A.P Music', is a heartfelt shout out to his genre as he raps"the closest I’ve come to feeling God is when I listen to rap music" and then "this is jazz / this is funk / this is soul / this is gospel / this is sanctified sick / this is player Pentecostal." It’s a touching way to end what's a mostly visceral experience.
With R.A.P. Music, Killer Mike has made his play for not just the best rap album of 2012, but for the best of recent memory. The man should be a superstar after this.