When I first heard about the collaboration happening between Killer Mike and El-P, I was immediately interested. El-P has been an innovative producer for a long time, but when he’s not producing for himself, it’s usually for another Definitive Jux artist such as Mr. Lif or Cannibal Ox. He has a style that’s unusual and forward thinking, but feels best suited for emcees in the Northeast, who live in condensed cityscapes. Killer Mike is certainly an intellectual and progressive emcee, but his style is distinctly Southern, specifically as part of a rich Atlanta hip hop scene. Of course, this album doesn’t mark the first time that someone from New York and Atlanta have worked together, and I don’t mean to suggest as such. It’s more that both El-P and Killer Mike both have strong and distinct personalities, with their identities tied to where they grew up. I was never worried, though, since I knew that these two artists wouldn’t bother working together if they were just going to put out another generic hip hop album. It was just a case of not knowing where they’re styles would meet over the course of a full length album. With the final product now in hand, we get the best case scenario - together they’ve created an album that stands apart from anything they’ve done before, with a new style that isn’t necessarily Atlanta or New York. It’s just incredibly good hip hop.

El-P manages to concoct a production style for this album that manages to take his own futuristic-sounding beats, move backwards to mix in some Bomb Squad-style condensed funk and some Run DMC-era Rick Rubin hits, then tosses in some Crunk and Organized Noize to give it a little Southern flavor. Like I said, the sound of this album is unique - it’s an urgent and hard-hitting. From the open bars of “Big Beast,” your ears are hit with an unrelenting barrage of hip hop that demands to be listened to loud and at full attention. “Big Beast” features Bun B, T.I., and Trouble, discussing what it means to grow up in Atlanta (or in Bun B’s case, Port Arthur, Texas), where strip club and gangsta culture is much more prevalent than elsewhere. All the emcees involved do a good job of presenting a complex view of the situation, with exception. The line that gives me the greatest pause is when Killer Mike declares “All of y’all rappers and producers and such/No homo promo, homie, you might get your ass touched.” I’m not a fan of “No Homo” in hip hop, and I can’t quite tell if Killer Mike is trying to make a commentary on it or not, and I’m not entirely clear what the message he’s trying to convey to the rappers and producers, either. “Untitled,” the second track, featuring Scar, brings into discussion the idea of being killed for speaking the truth, but also features an unfortunate opening verse in which Killer Mike discusses the ramification of his death on the women in his life. He manages to cast them all in a subservient role, wondering if his wife would remarry and change her name, and stating that it takes a woman’s womb to carry a Christ or Dalai Lama, but never brings into discussion that women can affect change on their own, not just by helping men. Moving a few tracks ahead, we get to “JoJo’s Chillin,” a song that carries on the storytelling style of Slick Rick, as we follow the protagonist JoJo as he tries to smuggle drugs on a plane. Killer Mike does a good job of unfolding the story, but at the end of the song, I’m left wondering if the story was worth telling. JoJo is extremely unsympathetic, gets lucky several times as others pay the price for what he’s doing, but there is no commentary on the situation, and it doesn’t feel like we should be championing him as a character.

The second half of the album begins with “Reagan,” and at that point, the stakes of the album are raised considerably. The song opens with a poignant quote from Reagan, in which he vows that the United States did not trade weapons for hostages. Killer Mike then sets the scene as he discusses how the poor in our country don’t have any power, and suggests that Oliver North amongst others played a part in drugs invading the neighborhoods of poor minorities in the ‘80s. The song is then interrupted to give us another quote from Reagan, this time amusing and terrifying at once, as he both confirms and denies trading arms for hostages. It’s at this point that Killer Mike really drops some science, as he clearly states how Reagan changed the culture for African Americans, with Trickle Down Economics not trickling down to them, while the War on Drugs and the privatization of the prison system ensured that they would constantly live in a world where crime was around them, cops had free reign to harass them, and money was to made from their incarceration. When the song concludes with Killer Mike exclaiming, “I’ll leave you with four words: I’m glad Reagan dead,” I can’t help but feel the same way. And this is all without discussing what he did to our veterans. “Don’t Die” is just as strong and even more urgent, as Killer Mike discusses police harassment, racial profiling, and the violence that results. In the recent memory of Trayvon Martin, Bo Morrison, Rekia Boyd, and others, this song is extremely moving. On top of all that, Killer Mike gets in a good dig at Diddy, who he claims is more concerned with partying in the Hamptons than helping out others and changing the culture in our country. This theme continues in “Anywhere But Here,” with Emily Panic. In the first verse, Killer Mike travels to New York, where he reflects on the death on Sean Bell, an African American man who was gunned down excessively by the NYPD. In the second verse, Killer Mike complicates the situation by going back to Atlanta, where he relates that despite having African American cops and an African American mayor, he doesn’t feel the situation is any better in his hometown. “William Burke Sherwood,” named after his granddad, discusses the difficulties of learning how to grow up and become a man in a tough neighborhood when you have a lack of positive male role models around you. It’s very honest, and includes a great extended metaphor involving Lord of the Flies. The title track, “R.A.P. Music,” is a great song to close the album on, an anthem in which Killer Mike discusses how he never found religion in church, but instead found it through music.

While there are a few points early on in the album that I don’t love, lyrically, they are honest flaws that Killer Mike is presenting, and I feel like it’s something that could be discussed further if we were in conversation. The album hits way more than it misses, and songs like “Reagan,” “Don’t Die,” and “R.A.P. Music” are all instant classics that will be in heavy rotation for quite some time to come. It’s an unlikely pairing, but El-P and Killer Mike came together to make a very challenging, inventive, and honest album. Despite it’s flaws, I really appreciate all that’s happening with R.A.P. Music.