Killer Mike's Long-Lost Time-Capsule Album
Disrespect his hood or his mama, fella, he'll turn your block into Rwanda, fella
Killer Mike is exactly the sort of great rapper who never releases a great album. When everything comes together right, Killer sounds like one of rap's most forcefully articulate voices: a passionate, demonic snarler who constantly trumpets his street connections but who can't help wearing his political and moral convictions on his sleeve even when he's spitting otherwise rote gun-threats. But his moments of greatness ("Home of the Brave," "That's Life," his guest-verses on "The Whole World" and "Body Rock" and Chamillionaire's "Southern Takeover") all feel perfectly isolated, like he only stumbles into the right context on occasion. He first came to prominence as an OutKast protege at the exact moment that OutKast first morphed into spaced-out day-glo funk-freaks, and even though that transition made OutKast one of the most commercially successful rap groups in history, it didn't make a whole lot of room for Mike's violently gravelly bark. Monster, Mike's 2003 debut, went gold during an era when a mid-level rap album selling those numbers seemed like a mild disappointment rather than a colossal success, and he sounded awkward and tentative over its bloopy synthetic Stankonia-sounding beats. After Monster, he spent a few years on the shelf, maintaining a low-profile presence on the Southern guest-verse roundtable and occasionally getting called up to murder an OutKast or Big Boi track. When he finally got sick of playing the background and left Big Boi's Purple Ribbon label in 2006, he released the indie double-CD I Pledge Allegiance to the Grind, and the fiery high points didn't make up for the insane number of boring beats and weed-carrier guest-verses. But in a weird twist of fate, Mike just released his best album, and it's the one he recorded three years ago. Ghetto Extraordinary, which Mike recorded in 2005 and finally leaked via Hiphopdx.com a few weeks ago, is as spotty and occasionally great as his other two albums, but its failures are almost as interesting as its successes. For reasons that have as much to do with rap's changing climate as with Mike himself, Ghetto Extraordinary works better today than it probably would've back when he first recorded it.
Ghetto Extraordinary is only three years old, but it sounds impossibly dated. Southern rap production is a completely different animal now than it was in 2005, and there's an intriguing time-capsule quality to these beats: pre-Jeezy, pre-snap, and pre-MySpace-rap. Mike recorded the album for Purple Ribbon, and even though the label never released it, it comes with all the usual big-label amenities: guests, attempted pop-crossover tracks, stuff like that. But the pop-crossover stuff feels almost quaint; even though the Jagged Edge collaboration "Leave This Hood" absolutely sucks; the complete absence of Jagged Edge guest-appearances over the past few years has made my heart vaguely fonder. "Aye-O," meanwhile, is an absolute shameless "Rubber Band Man" bite the same way Jeezy's "My Hood" was: David Banner reprising his own joyous summery organs and huge handclaps. As someone who still thinks "Rubber Band Man" was one of the best rap singles of the decade, "Aye-O" makes for a great little surprise.
The production on Ghetto Extraordinary is all over the map, and it comes from a time when production on a mid-level rap album actually could be all over the map, when it was reasonable to expect that Killer Mike might be able to attract more than one audience demographic. Rap albums might generally be more cohesive and consistent, but there's a grim determination in the way they focus on individual styles. All the formal digressions on Ghetto Extraordinary feel full of possibility, even if not all of them work. The lush and propulsive Andre 3000 bassline on "Gonna Go to Ghana" pulls off an unlikely hybrid of club-rap and Afrobeat. "Shot Down" has crunchy metallic guitars and screaming soul vocals. "Speak Lord" has a great swelling weepy gospel chorus. And even if we have to dig through the warmed-over crunk and watery rap&b to get to these tracks, it's still exhilarating to hear someone attempting to make all this stuff work.
And, to Mike's credit, it works more often than not. On hard, organic tracks like "Shot Down" and "Speak Lord," he's both convincingly hard and scorchingly emotional: venting impotent rage at unfair prison sentences, begging contrition for breaking his grandmother's heart. Mike's political ideas don't always come fully formed (he keeps talking about Kobe Bryant falling into a white bitch's trap), but even when his bile doesn't hold together, it's pretty great just hearing him spazzing out over everything that pisses him off. And if he's out of his league when he tries to trade pimp-talk boasts with 8Ball & MJG on "Gorilla Pimpin'," he makes up when he keeps up just fine with M.O.P., getting all rah-rah over rushing horn-blats on "Push Back." If nothing else, Ghetto Extraordinary makes a pretty good case that Mike deserves a spot on the remix circuit way more than most of the dead-weight clogging it up right now. Maybe one day Mike will make an album equal to his skills. Until then, Ghetto Extraordinary remains a fascinating little artifact of a time that really shouldn't feel so distant.
Voice review: Yancey Strickler on Killer Mike's Monster