Killer Mike often talks as if he’s giving you a history lesson.
He understands the importance of context, and wants his listeners to have the same understanding. Even if they don’t agree. And even if he often contradicts himself.
Still, he’s firm with his words. In fact, during a recent Wednesday afternoon at his garage in East Point, he admits that he’d likely be an attorney if he weren’t rapping.
But with a tone that contains a rich spiritual fervor, his most effective alternate career would likely be a preacher. If hip-hop had a church, the Atlanta rap legend and activist would be its priest. It’s a trait that has become the backdrop of each era of the rapper’s decorated journey, from his Grammy-winning work with Outkast during his rookie year and the festival phenomenon he created as part of rap duo Run the Jewels to his political advocacy and entrepreneurship, and, as of this month winning an Emmy Award.
On Killer Mike’s latest album “Michael”, his first solo LP in 11 years, he embarks on a spiritual trek that honors all of those facets while uplifting the Atlanta culture that made him that way.
“I’ve spent the last two years of my life, essentially, giving my journal to this album,” the man born Michael Render, 48, said in a recent interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “Killer Mike is a superhero that a 9-year-old invented in his mind. He wanted to be a badass rapper in this world. He wanted to make sure his name was called and respected. I’ve achieved that as one half of Run the Jewels. I’ve achieved that as Killer Mike....but what I have never done is give people this 9-year-old boy who grew up on the westside of Atlanta.”
Across 14 tracks, “Michael” encapsulates an introspective dive into the heart and soul of one rap’s most esteemed statesmen. It’s potent at unveiling the intimate storytelling and stirring vulnerability of the man behind the activism and Run the Jewels partnership. “Michael” is Killer Mike’s most personal album to date. And it furthers his status as an authority on and a master of Southern hip-hop. But the album often loses its vigor when understanding the traditional values of the Atlanta Way that inform his ethos.
The Atlanta Way is an alliance between the city’s Black and white business and political elites that was popularized after the 1906 Atlanta Race Massacre to serve the needs of corporations for the city’s benefit. The partnership has been historically touted for improving the experiences of Black Atlantans, but often at the expense of the city’s poor and working-class sectors — the exact community that raised Killer Mike.
His mom, Denise, had him when she was 16 years old, and his grandparents raised him and his two sisters on the west side of Atlanta. It was there that the rapper learned about Atlanta’s Black entrepreneurial spirit and the power of representation.
“The beautiful part of being in this enclosed world of Collier Heights community is that everyone was like me, in terms of color, but we had different people,” he said. “We had Muslims, we had people who were Black Hebrew, we had people who were Catholic, Baptist, Protestant and Pentecostal. We had all these differences within this Black neighborhood that let this little Black kid know, depending on how hard you work and how much you’re willing to educate yourself, you can have a good and decent life.”
“Michael” begins with that premise. “Down by Law,” the CeeLo Green-assisted opening track, is a rowdy, Southern manifesto on the resiliency of Black people amid societal oppression. “Moving like Malcom and Martin and King/Lift every voice is the song that I sing...Even in my days of whippin’ the hard/ I’d tell the devil the Black man is God,” he spits in his closing verse.
On “Nrich,” which features R&B crooners Eryn Allen Kane and 6LACK, Killer Mike offers a more subtle perspective on his firm belief in Black representation and ownership as a solution to oppression.
It’s a vague political strategy that leans too heavily on the power of Black representation without providing a framework for what happens when that representation doesn’t thoroughly reflect the needs of all Black people. It’s also what’s made the rapper target of criticism from Black activists who’ve admonished his support for Black gun ownership, recent meetings with Gov. Brian Kemp and last year’s Republican Senate candidate Herschel Walker and his message to Atlanta protesters after George Floyd’s murder in 2020.
But Killer Mike isn’t afraid to address his critics.
“You must use any place Black people have economic, political or number strength as a fort to plot, plan, strategize and organize, mobilize for the next move,” he said. “You don’t have to like Mike. You don’t have to agree with Mike. You don’t have to think I said anything. What you have to do is listen to my challenge, and my challenge was simply, while wearing a ‘Kill Your Masters’ shirt on national TV, was to say to Black people ‘Shut up, get by yourself, organize and plot against whatever is oppressing you.’”
The finest moments on “Michael” emerge not when Killer Mike is preaching about his politics or responding to criticism, but when he makes his vulnerability a focal point. His skilled lyricism reaches a peak when he uses specific life experiences to fuel vivid storytelling that becomes more relatable as the story unfolds. On the organ-backed “Motherless,” he eulogizes his mom, who shared deep conversations with him about the beauty of Black music and always believed in his talent. “Slummer” is a heartfelt portrait of a teen abortion.
“Other people need to know that that emotion is real,” he said. “You’re not by yourself.”
“Something for Junkies” recalls a life-changing moment during Killer Mike’s time as a drug dealer. His mom’s friend, who was an addict, told him that she didn’t buy from him simply because of his product, but she bought from him because he treated his customers like they were special.
“I could never simply be a user or abuser of someone who looked like me,” Killer Mike, on the verge of tears, said about the memory. “I could never turn away from my humanity, so it never left me. I had to write that song before I died to acknowledge that conversation so it’s never forgotten that an addict taught a child to not lose your humanity for greed of material things.”
“Michael” outlines a complex sketch of a man who’s learning to be more intimate with his emotions. It’s an Atlanta coming-of-age tale that celebrates the city’s vast musical history and talent (as heard on the Dungeon Family reunion of “Scientists & Engineers,” which features Future and a rare appearance from Andre 3000) that can easily fit in during a worship service. But it doesn’t evade the political ideologies that have caused controversy for him.
The gospel according to Killer Mike is as Black as it is gospel as it is Southern as it is often confusing. Still, the album poses as the rapper’s spiritual guidance for the 9-year-old Michael Render who didn’t fully realize his strengths.
“(’Michael’) is what the crack era was like. This is what getting it wrong a couple of times as a dad is like, this is what happens when you apologize and fix your past traumas and accept that they were my fault and this is what being celebratory about the life you lived is like and this is what being a proud Southern Black man is like,” he said.