Atlanta-based rapper Killer Mike and NYC rapper/producer El-P are local legends who have at times seemed like their best years were behind them. In that sense, R.A.P. Music is a little bit like Blaqkout, the excellent 2009 collaboration between DJ Quik and Kurupt — an album made that much sweeter by the fact that so few would’ve predicted it.
Mike is a classicist, a real-talk rapper doing what in his view, song and dance men wouldn’t dare: “This is church, front pew, amen, pulpit, what my people need and the opposite of bullshit,” he boasts on the title track. Given how gifted he is, his own lack of commercial success serves as proof that the state of rap as popular music might be as fouled-up as he claims. Mike’s clever this way: What might’ve been interpreted as failure has been recycled as badge of integrity. It’s an angle he’s been pushing at least since last year’s Pl3dge: “I’m in positions that these other rappers envy/ They major-broke and I get-rich indie.”
Part of what makes R.A.P. Music better than Mike’s past efforts is its concision, but an even bigger part is El-P’s production. For all its throwback talk and references, R.A.P. is a wildly diverse album, mixing north with south and ’80s with aughts, an album so schizoid in its approach to time that it could probably only have been made now. As a lyricist Mike is, well, discontent — about politics, about black American life, about the state of the music he loves. At one point he manages to finagle two women into his garage and he still sounds pissed off. Whatever nuance is lost in his opinions is gained in how he delivers them — if for no other reason, appreciate Mike as a stuntman who, regardless of how long the jump, never falls. Despite all the wrist-slapping and heavy pretenses, it’s a great album, one so carefully calibrated to sound like a rap classic that someday it might actually turn out to be one.