Killer Mike Says He Has Made the "Album of the Year, Unquestionably"

"The badass, swaggered-up character of Killer Mike comes firmly from the badass, swaggered-up experience of a kid growing up in Atlanta who fully knew he was capable of anything"

Photo: Jonathan Mannion

BY Vernon AyikuPublished Jun 14, 2023

While some rappers live in duality where their hip-hop personas and real selves never cross, Michael Render will tell you he and Killer Mike are one and the same.

"This is Logan to Wolverine," Render tells Exclaim! during a Zoom call. "I firmly know who I am. The badass, swaggered-up character of Killer Mike comes firmly from the badass, swaggered-up experience of a kid growing up in Atlanta who fully knew he was capable of anything."

If Killer Mike is an undefeated superhero, Michael Render is an unshakable man. Together, they claim they are sitting on the "album of the year" with MICHAEL.
MICHAEL is his first solo album in over a decade, and Render tells Exclaim! that he has something to say that he couldn't as part of his duo Run the Jewels. The deeply personal LP encompasses the totality of a 48-year Southern Black experience: a 20-year career of being consistently underrated; the 15-year-old who earned the nickname "Killer" in a rap battle; the child's imagination; the predominantly African American community that raised him; a generation of female leaders he still consults for wisdom. 

"I am purely showing you my soul on this one," Render says from his home in West Atlanta. "When you hear me mention something about my mom and my upbringing loosely on a record, it almost sounds fantastical, like a story or a movie. This gives you the movie, the story, of that child." If Run the Jewels are the X-Men, MICHAEL is Render's offshoot origin story.

"Truly, this is a Renaissance man talking to you, representing Renaissance men from his community," says Render. "Usually, you think about that from some kid in [Atlanta college] Morehouse — which I was — who knows about different writers and artists and knows academia. But also, a kid who knows how to put a hammer to a nail, who appreciates muscle cars, the working-class guy. He is all these things, and a representation of the men and women that loved him."

Relating everything back to his childhood in Adamsville — a former farming village that is now an Atlanta neighbourhood with a population that's over 90-percent Black — Render attributes his ego to his "powerful" upbringing. He was raised by his mother and grandmother, and it's the lessons from the Black women in his life which anchor the stories told on MICHAEL

"There is something to be said about the confidence Atlanta gave me. There is something to be said for the Black American experience that brought me here," he reflects.
More Rogue than Wolverine, Killer Mike is the sum of many parts. He has spent his career learning from industry giants, first as a pupil of Big Boi from the legendary Atlanta duo OutKast, then with T.I. under his Grand Hustle label and, most successfully, as a partner with El-P in Run the Jewels. MICHAEL shows what he's learned, proving him a grimy underground battle rapper with the vernacular of a university professor. Through all of it, Killer Mike paints a complex portrait of Black masculinity.

"I am the product of, 'What if Black power worked?'" he says. "Not in some over-romanticized way where I wear costumes and shout messages of power on every record, but just giving you a deeply personal record about the matriculation of a young African American man who grew up with hip-hop." 

He asks, "What if it works? What if Black children grew up confident and competent, and went on to compete and win?"

More than simply a recording artist, Killer Mike has become a prominent social activist, speaking out against police brutality and, most recently, the criminalization of rap lyrics in defence of currently incarcerated rappers Young Thug and YFN Lucci. From the first track, "DOWN BY LAW," it's clear MICHAEL is about giving Black people, specifically in the American South, his blueprint for how to combat systemic racism and build strong communities. Killer Mike believes the key to real change is focusing on hyper-localization and encouraging Black people to run for city councils, school boards and mayoral elections.

As for his own political future, Render says he eventually plans to run for a political position in Atlanta, but only after making more music — and money.

"At some point, I am absolutely going to run for a small local office in Atlanta. But for the next 15 years, I am running for the bag," Killer Mike says, explaining he currently feels a greater responsibility to his family to create generational wealth.

"Years from now, I hope that there is someone sitting down saying, 'I've read about this man who not only sang and danced for a living, but he made systemic change in his lifetime.'"

He continues, "Not only do I want my verse to be some of the dopest shit you have ever heard, I want to reveal something and relate to you. When you hear me shout out Herman J. Russell or Alonzo Herndon, I want you to say, 'Damn, that shit sounded good,' and then I want you to Google their names so you can see who has influenced me."

Calling it the solo album of his lifetime, Killer Mike is confident Michael is his best work to date. "I have worked very hard through the last couple years of my life," he reflects. "I hope that has awarded me the opportunity to have 55 minutes of your full attention.

"I think this album is like a great novel. I know it is — it is an important movie to be heard, sung and watched. Being in the 50th year of hip-hop, this is the greatest record out right now because it is needed. It gives you the results of 50 years of confidence and competence in what we can do."

As our interview winds down, Render declares, "I firmly know who I am," the chip proudly displayed on his shoulder. "MICHAEL is an artist 20 years in who has gotten better every year at becoming a storyteller and poet. Absolutely, it is the album of the year, unquestionably, in my opinion." 

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