The moniker Killer Mike conjures a lengthy list of descriptors: searing truth-teller, 2nd Amendment-advocate, activist, MC. On “Something for the Junkies,” he trades those in for something more earthly, sinking into his role as a concerned, but understanding nephew. Coasting over emotive production from Don Cannon and No I.D., the former D-boy recounts a moment of lucidity from an aunt struggling with drug addiction: “She closed her eyes, fantasized ’bout better times/When she was beautiful, fine and still snorting lines/She told me stories of glory, the club saying Suzy/Atlanta night life was glamor, rich, Black, bougie.”
It’s the type of vivid stanza that underscores Michael, a new LP that explores the roots of Killer Mike’s personal and philosophical being. Executive-produced by No I.D., it’s an eclectic, heartfelt swirl of majestic soul and songwriting that’s as piercing as it is intimate. For this one, Mike explores tragedy and love with a mix of naked sincerity and the types of detail that usually has to be extracted from memory. As he’s explained in multiple interviews, this isn’t Killer Mike, it’s Michael Render, a human being that’s more than the sum of whichever labels we try to prescribe him.
At about 54 minutes, Michael is a dense, but efficient body of thoughts and sounds, one embedded with instrumentation and gospel choirs you’d find in Black churches across the South. Of course, soundbeds like those are natural for Atlanta rappers of a certain age, but in this case, the dosage is more sizable — Mike’s deliberate move to incorporate the music of his childhood while paying homage to the culture that raised him. The project opens up with words from Dungeon Family co-founder Rico Wade and Cee-Lo Green, who suffuses the track with elastic soul. From there, Killer Mike laces a Curtis Mayfield sample with sprawling symbolism and motivational couplets. It’s part self-analysis part big bro pep talk: “Hello, hello my niggas/Hello my, hello my niggas/Please keep it mellow, my niggas/Stop sippin’ yellow, my nigga/You itchin’ and twitchin’ and glitchin’, my nigga/Listen, my nigga/Snakes in your circle and them bitches hissing, my nigga.”
While Killer Mike keeps most of the focus on himself, he finds new angles to do so, examining the trauma. On the aforementioned “Something for the Junkies,” he explores an ecosystem of drug dealers and users with humanizing sensitivity. For “Slummer,” he remembers what it was like to deal with his lover getting an abortion, a perspective that’s rarely addressed by men.
The production features plenty of homogenous stuff, but there are left-field flourishes that keep the energy fresh. “Scientists & Engineers” fuses ghostly Eryn Allen Kane vocals with extraterrestrial bleets and an appropriately eccentric André 3000 verse. When combined with Future’s trap opulence, it’s a cross-generational Dungeon Fam collab that proves an in-born stylistic chemistry between the performers.
While the beats can feel a bit one note, they’re rich enough that they still feel distinct. Still, the musical setup can feel pretentious; when so many gospel choirs and church organs are dispersed throughout the LP, some of their dramatic effect can dissipate. Collaborations with newer acts like Blxst and Kaash Paige add a splash of youngin energy for the LP, but aside from Mozzy, whose matter-of-factness is an engaging contrast to Mike’s overpowering delivery, they sometimes feel as if they’re just plugged into what otherwise were placeholders. On “Run,” Young Thug’s verse feels particularly phoned in, as he’s too busy listing off slices of luxury to create a verse that connects to a hook about overcoming the odds as a Black man.
Not everything on Michael lands perfectly, but it’s as complete as any Killer Mike release, with this one being more introspective than any of his Run The Jewels releases and even his debut album. It’s powered by honesty that goes beyond any titles fans have come to associate with the venerable spitter. In a career that’s stretched more than 20 years, Michael sees Mike as his most honest self, and it’s his most comfortable role yet.