Album Review: Killer Mike, ‘Michael’

    Michael has been a long time coming. It’s Killer Mike’s first solo album since 2012’s R.A.P. Music, a collaboration with rapper/producer El-P that led to the formation of Run the Jewels and convinced him the duo “should never not make music together.” Which, of course, does not mean they should or would only make music together. But it would be easy for his follow-up to feel more like a retread of old ground than a necessary expression of ideas that don’t quite fit into the RTJ universe. And so, with production from No I.D., Michael embraces a clear gospel influence while maintaining an eclectic palette that’s distinct from his recent work, favoring live instrumentation that suits the soulful and electrifying performances threaded across the album. The rapper uses it as an opportunity to look back, but he’s more interested in unraveling the complications of his past than offering a clear-cut celebration. It’s a tastefully arranged, heartfelt, occasionally misguided, and compelling project that delivers on yet rarely shows interest in exceeding expectations. Killer Mike has said it’s the album he wanted to make his entire career. For all its flaws, you don’t doubt him for a second.

    Michael is undeniably a personal album, but that doesn’t mean it’s entirely introspective or autobiographical, which often works to its benefit. Any celebration of success is framed through the lens of family and community, a smart choice that also honours what was at the heart of R.A.P. Music. ‘Something for the Junkies’ finds Mike grappling with his personal history of dealing drugs but ends up more of a tribute to those around him, particularly his aunt: “She said Michael, you say you love me, I know you mean it/ Cause you still treat your junkie auntie like a human being.” Such words provide the fuel for an album that’s refreshingly geared towards empathy and tenderness, pushing him to write a song as bracingly vulnerable as ‘Motherless’, in which he unpacks his complicated relationship with his late mother. It’s sort of remarkable, and somehow not distracting, that Michael remains just as hook-focused during those unflinching moments of self-reflection. It’s that unifying quality he leans into on closer ‘High & Holy’, which begins with the lines: “Real niggas it’s my honor to pay you homage/ And extend the same respect to all your baby mommas.”

    What prevents Michael‘s directness from feeling hollow is its underlying nuance, which doesn’t only come from Mike’s lyrical dexterity. Heightening the emotionality of ‘Motherless’ into something vividly striking is Eryn Allen Kane’s vocal presence, which elevates all three tracks she’s featured in – including ‘Scientists & Engineers’, the outstanding collab with André 3000 and Future. This is unsurprisingly a star-studded affair, with guest spots from the likes of 2 Chainz, Young Thug, Curen$y, Ty Dolla $ign, and, disappointingly, Dave Chapelle and CeeLo Green – and while some are just serviceable, they often have the effect of forcing Mike to be more versatile in style and flow, which helps keep the nearly hour-long album engaging. Still, nothing beats the camaraderie on display when El-P turns up on the penultimate ‘Don’t Let the Devil’, where his pen game turns from broadly respectable to absurdly funny (“Slap chickpeas out your cheek until you drool hummus” takes the cake for me).

    Sonically, Michael never feels quite as visceral or hard-hitting as R.A.P. Music – it’s not trying to be – but in its more uplifting moments, Mike’s confidence is still thrilling. There are times, though, when his tone becomes blatantly defensive in a way that kills the music’s momentum and lacks the specificity that renders his storytelling on songs like ‘Slummer’ so memorable. On ‘Talk’N That Shit’, he raps: “Niggas talk to me on that woke-ass shit/ Be the same niggas walkin’ on some broke-ass shit.” He boasts about his landlord status on ‘Spaceship Views’, asking, “Bitch, pay rent.” Perhaps worse are tracks that coast on the same mood but register as filler, like ‘Exit 9’. But Killer Mike never allows himself to get too comfortable with the position he occupies, especially when he accounts for what it took to get there. After all, the most admirable and revealing aspect of Michael, a project made by one of the most celebrated rappers alive, is that it somehow feels bigger than himself.

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    Michael has been a long time coming. It's Killer Mike's first solo album since 2012's R.A.P. Music, a collaboration with rapper/producer El-P that led to the formation of Run the Jewels and convinced him the duo "should never not make music together." Which, of course, does not...Album Review: Killer Mike, 'Michael'