Let’s get this out the way: Bomb Squad, Ice Cube, and masterpiece. These words were used ad nauseum to describe R.A.P. Music (a.k.a. Rebellious African People’s Music) as the leaks began to shake the internet. I mean seriously, how do we speak about the quality of a rap record that came with so many adjectives and expectations, but actually delivers? In the lore of rap, many talented individuals have fed the rumor mill about collaborations that had us holding our breath as though we’d made contact with extraterrestrial life. Yet more often than not, seedlings of mediocre songs are all that came to fruition. Here, Killer Mike and El-P make us want to construct Arundhati Roy like prose to capture the beauty of the bloodied toothless rebel smile of a twelve song dissertation on modern American. Remarkably, that’s just the content aspect of the songs. The whole album builds like a feedback loop of regional rap aesthetic and it pays tribute to rap’s polyvocal historical narrations of the underprivileged.
The album is best encapsulated by “Untitled”; a record that sounds like if Boyz In Tha Hood took place in Gilliam’s Brazil: full of clattering steel snares, an ominous police scanner like hum, and a buzzing low-end. Mike uses the record to ruminate on his own mortality as he considers the power and truth of his words having had better men than himself assassinated. On the haunting piano driven electrics of “Reagan”, Mike goes into full historian mode. He outlines how Reagan’s administration deployed a domestic war on Black communities that literally reshaped the trajectory of families and areas for the next three generations. Within that, it’s also a celebration of how all evil men die and people outlive their vileness. These acute observations continue on the sci-fi cinematics of “Don’t Die”. The song is a combustible track where El-P constructs four different movements to build the drama and shape the emotion of Mike’s narrative of a man on the run from dirty cops.
But, that’s just one piece of R.A.P. Music’s populous erudition. Mike and El also use the album for straight up fun rappity-rap shit talk too. “Butane” sounds like gang bangers loading guns in a ’74 Chevy Caprice as Mike and El-P lyrically slap around weak rappers. On “JoJo’s Chillin” or “Go!” you can hear the joy in Mike’s voice as he rides the golden era swing of bubbling 808 slaps with flows that are just as much about cadence, as they are about internal rhythm and clever use of simile and metaphor. It’s a nice juxtaposition to the energy outlined in the songs above. The album also allows Mike to get reflective as he basically writes his autobiography on “Willie Burke Sherwood”. Over a swelling orchestra of warm synthetic sounds Mike details how his grandparents raised and helped shape the choices he made to get to this point in his career and family life. The song nicely changes the tone of a very forceful record as it comes near its close.
Furthermore, here is where I want to highlight the genius of El-P’s production style and techniques. With this, and his own third solo album, El-P further cements why he really deserves to be mentioned among the greats of the art form. R.A.P. Music is not the jubilant claustrophobic anarcho-rave wall of sound Cancer 4 Cure is. This is El-P crafting a record for Killer Mike that sounds like the minimalist boom of southern rap resonating from under the sampling aesthetics of the golden era equipped with modern technology. The album swings like a church organ. It bares the funky stank of the open country side. It carries the soul of classic New York Jeep bangers. R.A.P. Music shows that he can seemingly paint any portrait of sound. “Southern Fried” and “Ghetto Gospel” are the best production examples of this regional synthesis coming to life. El is like a one man Autobots of beats kicking the shit out of his one-dimensional Deceptacon contemporaries.
Lastly, just like the last time two underground favorites came together and created Madvillainy, R.A.P. Music is further proof that instead of just sending each other files, maybe every now and then artists should build chemistry with each other in an actual studio. The dynamism of these records works because, as the interviews have shown us, El and Mike hung around and got to know each other. Their creative interest and differences have allowed them to trust each other and take risks. It’s something that the insularity of their prior comfort zones had denied them. Rebellious African People’s Music is truthful, honest, energetic, experimental, rebellious, intellectual, spirited, and soulful. It’s Mike and El in a ’64 Impala bumping Cuban Linx with childish grins on their faces because they know they just gave rap lovers another reason to celebrate its whole world in one sound brilliance.