“Don’t Die”[audio:http://alarm-magazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/Killer_Mike_Dont_Die.mp3|titles=Killer Mike: “Don’t Die”]
Like words themselves, Atlanta rap veteran Mike Render (a.k.a. Killer Mike) has the potential to be misunderstood. The hardcore southern rhymer — who first came to prominence thanks to his affiliation with Outkast — is a self-proclaimed “pan-Africanist gangster rapper, civic leader, and activist,” and his profile as the latter has been elevated recently by outspoken campaigns for Trayvon Martin, Troy Davis, and the Occupy movement.
He’s an anti-establishment MC who’s “addicted to literature.” And yet many of his previous (and some of his current) word choices don’t reflect the equality that he seeks. He has a history of using gay slurs and other defamatory terms, despite proclaiming himself tolerant and being quoted (in a recent interview with AlterNet) as saying, “I don’t care if you wanna marry the same sex. Whatever you want to do is cool, as long as you’re not infringing on other people.”
And so it’s with trepidation that some might approach RAP Music, Render’s collaboration with El-P (who fully produced the album and drops one guest spot) and first release for Adult Swim’s Williams Street Records (a relationship that presumably stems from Render’s voiceover work on Frisky Dingo).
But RAP Music, though still hardcore, is more reflective of Mike Render the sociopolitical lyricist, the one who decried hypocrisy and injustice on “That’s Life” (a track, ironically, that ended with homophobic words). There’s still misogynistic language, but, for what it’s worth, it’s more “of the street” than a deep-seated feeling from Render, who cites the struggles of Gloria Steinem in a recent explanation of “Don’t Die,” the album’s seventh song.
And for every track about “real G shit” or every mention of a “pimp cane,” there’s a reference to MLK Jr. or a song about the positive influence that Render’s grandfather had on his life. “Reagan” is one of the most fiery tracks, addressing the former president’s “war on drugs” and how it disproportionately targeted African Americans while actually making black neighborhoods more drug-infested. Render ultimately proclaims, “I’m glad [that] Reagan[‘s] dead,” but he lumps all recent presidents together as serving the same unseen forces, launching overt and covert wars to make the rich richer.
Render’s intelligence is obvious throughout the album, and it’s a shame that some of his word choices may obfuscate that. But given his continued activism and further push into political rhymes, RAP Music should give listeners a better sense of Render’s many sides. Even the title itself is a nod to history and to shared struggles; “RAP” here is an acronym, standing for “rebellious African people’s music.” It notes the commonalities between and importance of gospel, jazz, blues, R&B, funk, rock ‘n’ roll, and soul on the album’s final track, name-dropping some of the genres’ most popular black artists — those who helped break barriers and change the world as much as Render hopes to.