It’s a sign of how deeply the battle mindset is ingrained in hip-hop that, even decades removed from the heyday of rap battles, listeners consider guest spots not in terms of collaboration but competition. Fans eagerly rank verses and opine on which rapper topped another—a silly preoccupation, given that rappers who share tracks are working together, not against each other. Nonetheless, Killer Mike surely must have known he was making a statement by opening his sixth record, R.A.P. Music, with features from two of the longest reigning kings of the South, Bun B and T.I. On “Big Beast,” each veteran delivers 16 strong, purposeful bars that stand among their best in recent memory, and each is upstaged—and out-shouted—by their host, who fumes his way through two walloping, hell-raising verses.
Killer Mike hasn’t been shy about billing R.A.P. Music as his masterpiece, and though that can be debated, it certainly feels like the culmination of his unusual career. The ever-agitated rapper first turned heads by adding muscle to several Outkast projects, offsetting the duo’s eccentric dandyism with his roughneck temper. After a fallout with Big Boi, Mike struck out on his own, convincingly playing the tough-talking, coke-slinging thug on a string of solo albums, each of them more political and a less commercial than the last. Last year’s Pl3dge, a powerful record fixated on race relations and government failings, cut back on the trap talk greatly, but still periodically reached out to the clubs with crackling production from No I.D. and Tha Bizness.
R.A.P. Music finally extinguishes whatever lingering crossover hopes Mike might have had by turning over complete production duties to El-P, the firebrand behind some of the most caustic underground rap albums of his time. That pairing could have been overkill, piling anger on top of anger. But El-P has always been a more nuanced producer than his noisy leanings suggest, and even his hardest-slapping beats prioritize tension and menace over volume. On “Reagan,” an extended dissertation on the casualties of the former president’s policies and the forces that keep those policies alive, El-P’s mutated synths stir and simmer for minutes, only erupting when Killer Mike hits his thesis: “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.”
Killer Mike has likened R.A.P. Music to Ice Cube’s 1990 team-up with The Bomb Squad, AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted—an almost too convenient analogy, given how often over the years Mike has been compared to Ice Cube and El-P to Public Enemy’s no-prisoners production team—and with its trust-nobody paranoia and anti-police bluster, R.A.P. Music is nearly as unflinching as that record, a throwback to rap’s most provocative, conspiratorial era. For all his church and government takedowns, though, Mike leaves one institution unscathed: rap itself. R.A.P. Music’s title track closes the album on a note of salvation, with a genuine tribute to the genre and its power to guide and enlighten. “What I say might save a life / What I speak might save the streets,” Killer Mike raps exultantly. His testimonial is little different from the hackneyed rap-as-religion metaphors of so many Pollyannaish backpack rappers, but coming from a malcontent as stone-hearted as Killer Mike, it feels downright inspirational.