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Killer Mike at the top of the mountain

<em>Michael</em> is Killer Mike's first solo album since 2012, after over a decade of focusing on his duo Run the Jewels.
Jonathan Mannion
Courtesy of the artist
Michael is Killer Mike's first solo album since 2012, after over a decade of focusing on his duo Run the Jewels.

"I've never really had a religious experience, in a religious place," the Atlanta rapper Killer Mike says to begin the title track of his 2012 album, R.A.P. Music. "Closest I've ever come to seeing or feeling God is listening to rap music. Rap music is my religion." The intent in his voice doesn't read as blasphemy. It's more a confession: that his spirituality is not only unconventional, but profane. After comparing his music to various holy hallmarks — gospel music, church, calling it "player Pentecostal" — he offers his career up on the altar as a sacrifice despite his sin: "So I pray to the Lord He spare me, and I make it by and by / And I help souls stay out of Hell with what I testify / And maybe when I grab that microphone and never lie / That'll merit that He spare me, I won't have to feel that fire." It is a telling arrangement for the artist, the opposite of a Faustian bargain, where he keeps his soul in exchange for spreading the good word.

How he has fared on that mission might depend on who you ask. Mike has cut a particularly controversial figure as he's transitioned from Dungeon Family member to half of the crossover duo Run the Jewels. Plenty of rappers aren't scrutinized for what they represent outside of their music, but Mike is zealous expressing his ideas and dogmatic in their defense, not unlike most preacher men. Faith, in fact, is the undertone in much of his music, which often thinks of Mike as a vessel for God in one sense or another, as "R.A.P. Music" does. But that music has been noncommittal about his actual theology. (It's unclear how literal he was being about starting his own church during an experiment on his Netflix show.) To this point, Mike's musical relationship to his faith could be summed up by one facetious line on RTJ4: "Not a holy man, but I'm moral in my perverseness." God has frequently appeared in his lyrics, but mostly as a means to caution and counsel others, or as a barometer for how far he has strayed from a righteous path.

Michael, Killer Mike's first solo album in nearly 10 years, casts his faith in a new light — as essential to his story and his mission. Before, God was often inaccessible in the world of Mike's music, turning a blind eye to the terrors its people faced ("I used to pray to God, but I think he took a vacation / 'Cause now the state of Cali is ran by these corporations," he rapped on "No Save Point"). On this album, he is not just adamant and occasionally God-fearing, but prayerful. He is a sinner born again, one for whom the holy spirit has become a lifeline: "Born at Grady, a bastard baby, the single lady / I beat the odds; without God, I probably wouldn't have made it," he explains on "NRich." There are still flashes of the old cynicism — on "Don't Let the Devil," he raps, "Tell the deacon we ain't speakin', need money, his prayers worthless" — but for the first time in his career, Mike sounds like more of a believer than a skeptic.

Faith, particularly Christian faith, has never been far from rap's purview. It has tended to lack the clarity of thought afforded other rap staples, manifesting crudely even when — from "Only God Can Judge Me" to "Jesus Walks" — it connects commercially. Some of the music it generates is blasphemous ("Ten Crack Commandments," anyone?). Much of it is bad, or at least corny in its presentation. But when effective, it can function as both a powerful narrative device and a litmus test for personal principles. When you understand what an artist believes, particularly about the status of their immortal soul and the resulting moral responsibilities, it becomes clearer what the characters in their music are after and how they define (or even justify) the lives they live. Christian iconography outlined the career of the late DMX, and on his debut album, It's Dark and Hell is Hot, he is constantly waging war with the devil. Jay-Z, who has played the sacrilegious outlaw (See: "D'Evils," "Lucifer"), leans into that characterization on 2007's "Pray," where he all but asks God to become an accessory to his crimes. And yet, underneath the amorality is a small show of penitence, the rare display of fealty to a greater power from one of hip-hop's God MCs.

More recently, many of the biggest stars have dedicated significant space in their discographies to reckoning with religion. Kendrick Lamar's music has always been underscored by his faith, but 2015's To Pimp a Butterfly wrestled with that spirituality surreally, through allegory and metaphor, like a Bible story — communing with a God disguised as a panhandler and personifying the devil's temptations through a character named Lucy. "My rights, my wrongs; I write 'til I'm right with God," he rapped on "Alright." By 2017's DAMN., he seemed spent in pursuit of that goal: "I feel like the whole world want me to pray for 'em / But who the f*** prayin' for me?" he asked on "FEEL." Conversely, at the height of his power, Chance the Rapper was playing the altar boy, replicating a feel-good devotional music that was nearly scriptural in verse and reference, peaking with his spot on "Ultralight Beam" and his mixtape Coloring Book.

Other offerings have been more superficial. Drake's No. 1 hit "God's Plan" gestures vaguely at His influence with a half-hearted, monotone performance. And then, of course, there is Kanye West's late-career crusade, which feels less like ministry work and more like agitprop for Ye himself as a messianic figure. Killer Mike has been rapping about God nearly as long as Kanye, with nearly as messy a relationship. What he seems to believe, or at least what he confesses in his music, has shifted over time, aided by his steady improvement as a storyteller.

A powerful orator, Mike has always performed as if on the pulpit: He has a voice that could rattle stained glass, with a fire-and-brimstone delivery to match. His timbre, spirit and mannerisms can command the attention of a congregation, but, for many years, protest came before preaching in his songs. "If Jesus came back, Mother, where you think he'd be? / Probably in these streets with me," he raps on "God in the Building," from 2008's I Pledge Allegiance to the Grind II, with the impassioned rhetoric of a great televangelist. It's a recurring theme in his music: Jesus in the hood, not just a miracle worker but a social worker and community organizer.

If Jesus is in the streets, it follows that Mike would make himself an enemy of organized religion. Just as his raps have frequently targeted world leaders for failing to serve those they represent, they target church leaders for abusing positions of power. "I don't trust the church or the government," he says at the end of "Untitled." On "That's Life II," he takes aim at molester priests and megachurch celebrities filling their coffers. In his songs, religious figureheads are spiritual middlemen, putting a price on prayer and lying about their influence on the returns. "A pope is a fraud, a church is a lie / A queen is the same damn thing, you should pray to your fake god that she die," he raps on "Angel Duster." More recently, he literally transformed the crucifixion story into a parable on state-sanctioned violence and anti-socialism: "Never forget in the story of Jesus the hero was killed by the state," he raps on "walking in the snow."

In Mike's early music, advocacy is God's will, and activism is evangelism. But even with God moving in him, His reach and Mike's patience seemed to have clear limits, causing a buildup of fury he would redirect at anyone he had a gripe with: rap rivals, of course, but also moguls on the Forbes list, the "sucker s***" on TV, dirty cops and the Reagan administration. From there, the lines would blur: Being a holy champion would take a backseat to being an agitator, fire-starter and fully loaded marksman. Two tenets of his philosophy would come to transcend all else: a gun is more direct than divine intervention, and people must deliver themselves from evil.

Now, after years of keeping religion at bay, Mike uses it to set the table for Michael — and in divulging some of his most personal stories, recounting the particulars of his struggle and his rise, his purpose seems to come into focus. He has always seen rap as a higher calling, but now he seems to literally be positioning himself as the evangelist promised on "R.A.P. Music." In so doing, he seems to define his own ministry, one that not only encompasses decisions he's made in the past but colors his music's politics. "Bless all the felons that handled the raw / F*** all the tellers that ran to the law / Watch out for the hitters with sticks in the car / My name is Michael, I'm down by law," he raps to end the opener, establishing the parameters of his doctrine.

Michael is no gospel album, but it is rooted in a Southern religious identity. It thinks about Christianity as inextricable from local philosophy; even if you aren't a regular churchgoer, you have been touched by it. Some likely have a subconscious impulse to think of the album as self-righteous, and while rap bombast and Christian pomp do align in some regards, they are ideologically at odds. Mike picks and chooses which commandments to obey, but it is in that way that his faith is most real; practically every adherent to every religion practices in ways that feel most in tune with what is pragmatic in their own situation. In his life, some of the piety is aesthetic, some of it is conditional, and some of it is confessional.

There are a lot of hammond organ and choir fills — symbols of the Southern church. Mike recalls dropping his babies at the church nursery, and he has an altar to his grandmother where he asks her to pray for his generation. He knows the preachers and the thugs. Though usually cheeky, here he is close to reverent, blessed to have made it out of the slums. His album is one about the sustaining power of belief, and God as a conduit for positivity. In one section of "Exit 9," Mike remembers his grandmother pleading with him to be "saved in Jesus' name," but he wouldn't listen: "I know some of my actions, they was taxin' and I hurt her / But Lord, if she listenin', please let her know I heard her." In that moment, God is flowing both ways, connecting the two of them across time. Listening to his stories of survival, it feels as if his belief was hard won.

Most rap spirituality is ultimately a secular spirituality — often explicit and sacrilegious, sure, but also egocentric, bound closer to its profit model than any altruistic ideal. To be fair, churches do make billions annually. Faith is as much an industry as a means of collective expression. But that doesn't mean it can't positively impact those who buy in, however they choose to. The most enriching and interesting music to come out of that decision is the stuff that can somehow tap into the uplifting power of a Sunday service, or grapple with our humanity in ways that illustrate why we look to religion for answers in the first place.

Michael does neither, but finds a curious alternative: the autobiography as confessional, using personal history as a means to explore the way God manifests — in individual lives and in the Southern imagination. Across the album, Killer Mike thinks about and applies his Christianity differently. As with most rappers, there is a general thankfulness for the blessings God has bestowed — more in the flexing, Big Sean application of the term than the charmed Chance one — but his spirituality doesn't strictly see divine favor being represented by material gains, and his worship isn't without questions. The God of his music is one that sees and serves the castoffs in society: the junkie, the fiend, the loser. "Now, I only go to churches where they welcome worthless men / Who had to get it out the mud and rise up out the sediment," he raps on "Two Days." Mike, for his part, has become a willing shepherd. But even as he uses his craft to confer the spirituality he talked about feeling as a rap listener a decade ago, there is a sense that the enlightenment he seeks may exist beyond his bars.

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Sheldon Pearce
[Copyright 2024 NPR]