Killer Mike’s Michael is the MC’s first solo album since he and rapper/producer El-P formed Run the Jewels over a decade ago. Boasting a different sound and mood than the duo’s four collaborative albums, Michael emphasizes Killer Mike’s Atlanta heritage by harkening back to a style of Southern rap influenced by gospel, soul, and blues.
Traces of more contemporary ATL sounds like trap music are palpable on “Run,” which features Atlanta native Young Thug, though tracks rife with religious imagery like “High and Holy” and “Don’t Let the Devil” lean heavier on warm pianos and organs than cicada-style hi-hat fills. Unlike the more synth-based production of, say, RTJ4, most of Michael was created with live instrumentation to complement samples of Curtis Mayfield, Three 6 Mafia, and others.
Killer Mike’s tribute to his lineage extends to the women in his life on “Shed Tears,” “Motherless,” and “Slummer,” which are structured as call-and-responses between the rapper and female background vocalists who deliver the hooks. In fact, the album’s final words come from a woman praying in the Nigerian language Yoruba, honoring her ancestors and paying homage to the traditions, musical and otherwise, that Michael is steeped in.
Now pushing 50, Killer Mike takes responsibility for his more dubious actions, including putting himself through college by selling drugs, on “Something for Junkies,” which finds him recalling the days when “trap was great, counting my money” while also acknowledging the damage that his aunt’s drug had on her. “Thank the Lord I ain’t a junkie, ain’t an alcoholic,” he says.
Given how much of Run the Jewels’s appeal comes from the duo’s position as spokespeople for leftist politics in hip-hop, Killer Mike’s contradictions have made him a target for criticism over the years. In 2020, he took a meeting with Georgia’s Republican governor Brian Kemp about job creation in the state, which raised eyebrows among some on the left.
Rather than directly address the criticism, though, Mike gets unpleasantly defensive on “Spaceship Views” and “Talkin Dat SHIT.” “I’m in rooms with politicians talking business and shit/Hear you come with your opinion, ain’t solicit that shit,” he boasts on the latter. He even tosses in some thinly veiled homophobia with a reference to Brokeback Mountain. The album’s soulful, more mature mood instantly vanishes, replaced by stripped-down beats courtesy of Three 6 Mafia’s DJ Paul that only serves to highlight the reductiveness of the lyrics.
Almost every other song on Michael relies on a similar arrangement of choirs, pianos, and organs, which risks becoming tiresome, though its sonic divergence from most mainstream American hip-hop today is refreshing. In that sense, the album is a kindred spirit to the prolific British collective Sault, who incorporate lush R&B and gospel into their eclectic sound. While Michael tips its hat to both ’90s hip-hop and the ’70s soul that influenced it, it also points to a perspective that could only come from Killer Mike’s present.
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