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Killer Mike and El-P of Run The Jewels
Run The Jewels Are Ready To Pierce Your Heart Again
Killer Mike and El-P sit down with the Recording Academy to talk about rap as visual art, being each other’s biggest fans, and how 'Run the Jewels 4' puts the duo on pace with the likes of Led Zeppelin and OutKast
"The people said to us, 'Mike, El, we need the music. We want it now,'" explains Jaime Meline, better known as El-P. Though our interview occurred three days prior to the death of George Floyd at the hands of members of the Minneapolis police force, he couldn’t have been more right. El-P and his partner, Killer Mike (real name Michael Render) had been asked whether they’d want to delay the release of their fourth album as Run the Jewels until the end of the pandemic. Now, the rap duo have released RTJ4 earlier than expected, two days before the original release date.
"The world is infested with bullshit so here’s something raw to listen to while you deal with it all," they said in a statement, alongside a list of organizations fighting for justice, change and equity to contribute to. But even when they thought the album would only be released in the midst of the coronavirus lockdown, Run the Jewels remained focused on the strength and defiance that their music could bring those struggling to find hope, fighting the oppression of Black lives.
As might be expected from Run the Jewels, even without the context of national protest and outrage, the rap duo’s focus was already set on fighting institutions of systemic racism and urging their listeners towards tangible change. "It's not enough to simply hate slavery and say you love freedom," Killer Mike explains. "It is only enough if you are John Brown and you are willing to make sure that other human beings are free, and to understand the use of any means necessary to do so."
Killer Mike and El-P spoke with the Recording Academy about rap as visual art, being each other’s biggest fans, and how Run the Jewels 4 puts the duo on pace with the likes of Led Zeppelin and OutKast.
If one of you brings an idea to the table, do you spend time contextualizing it together, or do you just implicitly trust you'll be able to relate to that concept?
Killer Mike: A big part of our secret is that we work in the same room together, present in the moment. Even if El is working on beats and raps for the first half of the day, and then I tend to be a later riser and worker than him, the energy is still so fresh. Being in the same room, you get to be you. Everyone is fully themselves when they wake up and they're in the bathroom mirror before the shower. After that you're still you and a true version of you, but it is in relation to the people outside of you. So I am Michael Render and Killer Mike. I am still the same human being within Run the Jewels, but in the concept of adding the other perspective, you get to see Mike in what I feel is a different light and a different perspective. I still rally against the evil and the masters that oppress me, but the difference is in interpretation. Now my audience not only sees a Black man rallying against the oppressors, they get to see his friend and white counterpart say that these are evil bastards as well. Now Mike is not just Ice Cube 2.0. Mike is not just Chuck D 2.0. I am all that, and I'm a student of those artists and bringing that to Run the Jewels, but it becomes what I feel is different and could be considered a richer experience because of the added perspective of it now existing together on some transformative shit. Imagine if you had Cube shoved in the Beastie Boys. At times Run the Jewels records are all that.
El-P: It starts with spontaneity and no rules. I'll put music on and either I'll have an idea or I'll wait for Mike to get inspired—what we call "catching the holy ghost." You let your instincts move you, and then it's a process of going back, relating to it, and understanding what it is. Often we go back and change and move things around—even completely rewrite. We left a lot of room for ourselves to keep asking, "Is the first thing that I said what I wanted to say, or is it a good starting point to climb up from?"
Mike is very spontaneous. I'm a different type of writer. I sit there and I write, and you might not hear a peep out of me for six hours. And then when I get up, I have something. Mike has a whole different way that he approaches it. He gets moved by the music and he starts rapping, connecting words and ideas. There's this really beautiful mixture of something really constructed and something really spontaneous, and then both of us pull inspiration from each other. He goes back in and constructs a little bit afterwards, and I go back in and I loosen up a little bit. It's a really fun, interesting process, and it's one of the reasons why I still get excited about making Run the Jewels music. I literally cannot predict what the hell is going to happen when we get together.
That's the beauty of solidarity and collaboration. You have a partner who emphasizes your strengths and allows you to challenge yourself. There's so much family in rap, but it’s not often discussed how that affects the process.
El-P: When you're working with someone that intimately cares what you care about, you're saying, "We have agreed that both of us are dedicated to what you're doing being the best version of what you're capable of doing. Your voice is trusted." Artists are very prickly. We're sensitive people. We want people to love what we do. We want to be understood. And that comes in when we collaborate. At the end of the day, no matter what, Mike knows that if I say, "I think that you can do this better," or if he says, "This doesn't feel right to me," this is a safe space and there's something unbelievably freeing about that. But it takes work. It's a trust fall. You have to be really secure in that knowledge that the other person wants the best for you.
"We didn't have the same melancholic cloud hanging over our heads that we did when we did the last record. We wanted this to be a lean, mean, fun, and angry record."
Mike, I remember you calling your last record the "blue" record. Where does this one fit in a grand scheme of color and/or feeling?
El-P: Oh god, I love you so much for asking that question. That just shows me that you're an artist. When Mike and I talk about our records, we don't talk about what we're saying, we talk about what we want to feel. We talk about colors and the essence of the way that we want the images in our heads to react off of the music. This record is red and orange and purple, with flames behind it. We didn't have the same melancholic cloud hanging over our heads that we did when we did the last record. We wanted this to be a lean, mean, fun and angry record. When the moments of blue hit, then you’ll be ready for them.
Killer Mike: I hope people enjoy the electricity. We really were coming out of a blue period. When Picasso came out of his blue period, it was with brilliance. I'm a visual artist first. Not a very good one—thank God I can rap, right? But I sit on the board of the High Museum literally for the chance to see cool art before anyone else. Picasso means a lot to me. The art world should still be thankful for him coming out of the blue period—and his blue period was one of the dopest periods in art! So our blue album was amazing, but this record is vibrant, it is alive, it is ready for the fight. It is rebellious, it is rambunctious. It is Run the fking Jewels sharply whittled down to a fine-tipped spear, ready to pierce your heart again.
El-P: I look at this record as stumbling with romance and love through chaos, and coming out the other end not masters of the world, but masters of our heart. We're never saying, "We know what is right." But we are saying, "We are lovers of life. We are on the side of humanity. We are on the side of love." And that is messy and chaotic and fun and funny. And also sometimes it means saying something so exposing of yourself that it takes legitimate bravery, and we will not flinch away from those moments either.
That ties to the track "Never Look Back," where you encourage people to fight the impulse to ignore the past.
El-P: It's an instinct for many people, and for me, to always look forward, to never engage with the ghosts of your past because it can be painful. And I think that’s what this record was about. Each of us are reckoning a little bit with the people that we love, and we do it in our own way. It's little montages, little impressionistic moments of our past that are open-ended questions.
I love Mike's verse on that one. I always tend to be more into my partner's verse because it's not where my mind is. I'm the official Mike fan in the group. [Laughs.] He has to be the El-P fan in the group. I love Mike presenting imagery, not solutions and not critique. But when Mike says that his dad said never give a woman any money—and I'm paraphrasing here—and he said he had to ask dad, "Does that include mommy?" It's such a cool little moment and means so much.
Killer Mike: I was dealing with the death of my mother over the past two or three years. She died while I was on the plane on the way home. My friend Sleepy was right there at her bedside, and we were FaceTiming. She was happy. But my mother really was an artist, and like many artists she suffered from bouts of depression and mania, and she suffered from addiction. She always accepted responsibility for going a little earlier than she should have, but she told me certain things that moms just don't tell sons—but they're very valuable things. My mother taught me how to survive the streets. That is not a cliche. She made sure that I did not go to jail by doing dumb shit. She was also a brilliant business woman. She bought a house at 19, paid it off by 29, and never depended on people for things. But I cannot allow myself, even now, to stop and consider that she could be gone. If I did, it would cripple me. So I get up every morning, I talk to her shrine and I listen to her old voicemails.
As a dad, I relate to my dad [saying never give a woman money]. I pay child support. My son graduated yesterday. Child support ends this month. I've paid a quarter million dollars. That's a funny anecdote to me now as a dad. I'm listening to my dad, but I'm like, "That doesn't work in the real world, dad. You gotta take care of your kids." That song allowed me to acknowledge things that I feel and care about, and at the same time, the only way I am where I am and manage to be sane is to keep moving forward. I move forward to the next Run the Jewels, therefore I don't get stuck in Ferguson. I don't get stuck with Eric Garner and Erica Garner and the memory of them and how heavy it is. As a Black man in America, it is heavy. "Never Look Back" allows me to push forward. It doesn't mean the pain doesn't happen. It means the trauma doesn't paralyze you.
I’m so sorry for your loss. Thank you for sharing. What was the connection that led to you having Mavis Staples feature on "Pulling the Pin," and how did you arrive at her being the perfect fit for that song?
El-P: I had written that hook, and we tried it multiple different ways. We had tried it with me doing it. We tried it with Mike doing it. We tried it with me and Mike doing it. We tried it with other singers. It was exhausting. But when you write something and your partner loves it, that's the ultimate compliment. Mike, being like, "That represents me too, you nailed it"? That was amazing. And he was like, "But you can't sing it. And I can't sing it. And nobody that we've tried can sing it." And I was just like, "Motherfker!" [Laughs.] It had to happen that way. Mike had to be a stubborn motherfker in that case. Don't let it get to your head, Mike, you can't do that to me on every song. [Mike laughs.] Mike was very adamant about wanting it to be someone who could convey a pain and a soul. So, despite how exhausted I was, I understood that and we kept looking. One of our managers brought up Mavis, because Mike had a connection. We obviously love Mavis. Mike had been asked to write for her a couple of years ago, but it didn't happen. But they kept in touch, so when Mavis came up, it was almost like, "Why didn't that come up on day one?" We were lucky enough that Mavis heard the song and she of course loved Mike already. She heard the lyrics and she was like, "Yeah, let's go." So I was on the plane the next day to Chicago, and then I'm hugging Mavis Staples.
Killer Mike: That's so dope.
El-P: She's the most huggable human on the planet. What a beautiful soul. To be able to include her in our music and for her to represent us? For her to say "This is worthy of me putting my energy into it"? This woman is a legend. She is a musical and a human legend. It was just very, very touching.
What do you think it is about you two that makes that kind of unexpected team-up possible? For instance, I don't know anyone that would have expected to see Pharrell and Zach de La Rocha on the same track.
El-P: [Laughs.] We live for that shit, man.
Killer Mike: All of it happens from a really organic place. Zach and El have been friends for 20 years or better. Since being introduced to Zach, he literally is a homie. Pharrell and I had known each other from the political world, interestingly enough. Of course, I'm a Pharrell fan. I was shocked and humbled he fked with me. But we met each other on the circuit trying to get our respective people elected. I was a Bernie guy, he was a Clinton supporter, but we bonded over trying to help our community. I think that the seamlessness comes from a place of getting everything out of very personal and very friendship-minded places.
This album is not coming out how it was intended. What kind of impact do you hope it can have in this moment?
El-P: I love being able to infuse people with some fking badass-ery. I just hope that it brings people some joy, puts a smile on your face, makes you nod your head, makes you have a feeling of connection, and makes you want to move and get up. We're all fragile right now. It's dark out there, and it's tough. It doesn't seem to have an end, really, and the ending doesn't seem particularly great either. They asked us if we wanted to push our record back to next year and we were just like, "Fk no." This energy is something that we think can do some people some good right now. So whatever happens happens. I don't know what the result is going to be, but we love this music and I hope that it puts a smile on your face.
Killer Mike: The record company and the marketing team didn't decide this is the perfect time. We decided it was the time. The people who were locked in their homes during the pandemic said to us, "Mike, El, we need the music. We want it now." We will stay on the road when the road opens back up. We will make more music for as long as we are allowed to by our supporters.
When the first album came out, it felt like the start of a limited series, but now that you've hit gold standard with four records. How do you envision that story continuing?
Killer Mike: The prerequisite for being in an actual group was having four dope records. You have to have four classics in my mind. To me, that's Led Zeppelin, OutKast, EPMD, A Tribe Called Quest. I don't know what the next album is. I don't know if it'll be 5, or if it’ll have a different title. But what I know is that we have an amazing adventure and a journey together as a group, along with our fans, and I don't want this television show, this graphic novel, this movie to end anytime soon.
That makes me think of the cinematic way you talk about real people’s lives and struggles, like on "The Ground Below" where you speak out about supporting sex workers unionizing their services. I don't know what the landscape would look like if you don't have a group like yours saying that.
Killer Mike: I'm glad you caught that because a lot of people are going to take that as sarcasm. I'm very serious about that, even though it comes off funny as shit. People know four things about me. I'm Shay's husband, I'm one half of Run the Jewels and I enjoy marijuana and strip clubs. My wife and I go together and we’ve wound up being friends with everybody—bartenders, waitress, dancers. For years we wouldn't attend this club because the dancers were saying they weren't being treated well by management—so we actually supported them in trying to get a union in the club. For me, it's an amazing cross-section of working classism: the people who support strip clubs are working class men who have unions, and at some point dancers are like, "We deserve a certain amount of workplace dignity too."
I don't know if that would be out there without Run the Jewels. I don't know if you get the song "Liberation" without OutKast. I'm not worried about what the fk anyone thinks about me and my support of sex workers. I'm worried that they get the same dignity and respect that I deserve and get on my job.
That same freedom powers the song "Ju$t," where you say, "Look at these slave masters posing on your dollar." It feels so crucial to have somebody in 2020 still bringing up the word "slave" and making it clear that this is not over, that you have to wake up and know that oppression is there.
Killer Mike: Shouts out to Pharrell for that hook. As I'm talking to you, I am literally wearing a "Kill Your Masters" T-shirt, which is a saying I've lived by for years. I'll never forget a white attorney associate of mine saying, "You know, I'm troubled by the shirt. It might incite violence against white people." I said, "Well, for that to happen, that would mean you would assume yourself my master. My master is sugar. I eat too much candy. When I put on my Kill Your Masters shirt, it just reminds me, "You've still got to go to the gym in the morning, fat boy. Eat a little less sugar, you won't have to work as hard." [Laughs.]
If somebody is going to say that they feel uncomfortable by a statement that you’ve made, it shows more about them than it does the statement.
Killer Mike: Yes! And then I asked him, "Let me ask you a question. If you happened upon a plantation, what advice would you give a slave?" And the phone went silent. It's not enough to simply hate slavery and say you love freedom. It is only enough if you are John Brown and you are willing to make sure that other human beings are free, and to understand the use of any means necessary to do so.
Here Are The Nominees For Best Rap Song At The 2024 GRAMMYs
Get a deeper look into the five tracks from Doja Cat, Nicki Minaj and Ice Spice, Lil Uzi Vert, Drake and 21 Savage, and Killer Mike, André 3000, Future and Eryn Allen Kane that earned the Best Rap Song nod at the 2024 GRAMMYs.
Rap music has changed a lot since the Best Rap Song category was introduced at the 2004 GRAMMYs. Most of the first year's nominees, even if they're still making music, now spend the majority of their time on things like making hit TV shows or running iconic fashion brands.
But the category, then and now, has its finger on the pulse; it gives us a cross-section of what makes hip-hop so important to so many people. The Best Rap Song nominees for the 2024 GRAMMYs are no different. The Category includes a pop princess taking a big left turn; two New Yorkers paying tribute to the greatest of all dolls; a Philly rapper taking us to the club; a duo who can't stop flexing on us; and a Dungeon Family reunion that spans generations.
Below, take a deep dive into the five tracks up for Best Rap Song at the 2024 GRAMMYs.
Attention" — Doja Cat
Rogét Chahayed, Amala Zandile Dlamini & Ari Starace, songwriters (Doja Cat)
"Attention" marked a new era for Doja Cat — one where she moved away from the pop sounds that made her famous, and into something harder and more aggressive.
In the weeks leading up to the track's release, Doja called her earlier rapping attempts "mid and corny" and referred to the music that broke her into the big time as "mediocre pop." So it only made sense that her big statement single would be exactly that — a statement.
The beat by Rogét Chahayed and Y2K has a drum loop that wouldn't sound out of place on Ultimate Breaks and Beats, and Doja lets the world see her inner hip-hop fan with some serious rapping — no mid or corny verses here. This is the Doja who can quote underground faves like Homeboy Sandman and Little Brother at the drop of a hat.
"Attention" finds Doja addressing her often-contentious relationship with fans and social media, as well as the controversies she went through leading up to the song's release. But the whole thing is playful and ambiguous. Does she want the world's attention, now that she has it? What is she willing to do to keep it? In this song — and even more so in its video — Doja plays with these questions like a truly great superstar.
"Barbie World" [From Barbie The Album] — Nicki Minaj & Ice Spice Featuring Aqua
Isis Naija Gaston, Ephrem Louis Lopez Jr. & Onika Maraj, songwriters (Nicki Minaj & Ice Spice Featuring Aqua)
Aqua's "Barbie Girl" was too sexy for Mattel when it was released in 1997 — the company sued the band, claiming that people would associate lyrics like "Kiss me here, touch me there" with their wholesome children's toy. So it's both ironic and, given the post-irony tone of the movie itself, somehow fitting that "Barbie Girl" is sampled in a major song from the new Barbie movie.
And who better to bring Barbie to life in rap form than the head of the Barbz? Soundtrack producer Mark Ronson said that there was no way to have a Barbie soundtrack without Nicki Minaj, and he was absolutely right. Nicki, with her career-long association with Mattel's most famous toy, was the perfect choice. Joining her on the track is the hottest rapper of the moment, Ice Spice. Ice's go-to producer RiotUSA did the music for the song, which accounts for both its aggressive drums and its sample drill-style use of the once-verboten Aqua hit.
Nicki and Ice have great chemistry in the song. Nicki doesn't treat the song like a movie soundtrack throwaway — her rhyming is clear, sharp, layered, and funny. And she gets extra points for referring to a bob-style wig as her "Bob Dylan."
"Just Wanna Rock" — Lil Uzi Vert
Mohamad Camara, Javier Mercado & Symere Woods, songwriters
Lil Uzi Vert took "Just Wanna Rock" from TikTok all the way to the GRAMMYs.
The track began as a snippet on the social media app, where it went viral, garnering hundreds of millions of views; even celebrities like Kevin Hart got into the act. When the actual song came out, at just about two minutes long, it wasn't much longer than a TikTok video. But it didn't need to be — the full track kept all the joy and danceability of the memeable excerpt.
"Just Wanna Rock" features Uzi acting as an MC, but not in a traditional going-for-the-cleverest-rhyme way. Instead, his voice is used more for its rhythmic qualities, darting in and out of the four-on-the-floor pounding of the kick drum with short, punchy phrases. "I just wanna rock, body-ody-ya" may not look like much on the page, but it's placed perfectly, and it's the kernel that blossoms into the rest of Uzi's performance.
He takes the rhythm of that initial phrase and plays with it throughout in increasingly intricate ways, while never losing sight of the source material. The song is heavily influenced by the Jersey club sound that has been all over hip-hop this year. As the most popular rap/Jersey club crossover of 2023, it makes perfect sense that "Just Wanna Rock" is in the running for Best Rap Song — even if it is unfinished.
"Rich Flex" — Drake & 21 Savage
Shéyaa Bin Abraham-Joseph, Charles Bernstein, Isaac "Zac" De Boni, Brytavious Chambers, Aldrin Davis, Aubrey Graham, J. Gwin, Clifford Harris, Gladys Hayes, Anderson Hernandez, Michael "Finatik" Mule, Megan Pete, B.D. Session Jr & Anthony White, songwriters
Simon and Garfunkel. Sam and Dave. Hall and Oates. To that list of great duos, it might be time to add Drake and 21 Savage. Seven years after their first collaboration, Toronto and Atlanta's finest finally got together for a full-length project in 2023, and Her Loss standout (and opener) "Rich Flex" is now up for an award on Music's Biggest Night.
"Rich Flex," like much latter-day Drake, has multiple beats. But in this case, that adds to the song's playful mood. Drizzy and 21 sound like they're actually having fun — Drake even playfully lapses into a sing-songy, nursery rhyme-esque melody on occasion. Savage, for his part, seems to be having a blast interpolating Megan Thee Stallion's "Savage" — a move which earned the Houston rapper a writing credit on the track.
Drake, as in a lot of his recent work, seems consumed with the costs of fame: haters everywhere you look, hangers-on who make your house feel like a hotel; women who won't leave you alone; unwanted attention from law enforcement. But he almost never sounds this engaged, even joyful, when addressing these topics. Maybe what he needed all along was a duet partner.
"Scientists & Engineers" — Killer Mike Featuring André 3000, Future And Eryn Allen Kane
Paul Beauregard, Andre Benjamin, James Blake, Tim Moore, Michael Render & Dion Wilson, songwriters
It was Andre 3000's first appearance on a song in two years that got all the attention at first. But there's a lot more to "Scientists & Engineers" than the fact that the reclusive half of OutKast shows up.
For one thing, it's what he shows up with. Andre's verse is smart, well-observed, poetic, and somehow manages to change focus completely in the middle and yet still hold together as an artistic statement.
But he's far from the only talent on the song. The track is a veritable all-star fest — not for nothing did Killer Mike call it a "hip-hop fantasy." On the music side, there are contributions from legendary producers No ID and Three 6 Mafia's DJ Paul, hip-hop's favorite singer/songwriter James Blake, and TWhy. Singer Eryn Allen Kane adds her gorgeous vocals. And Future, who lest we forget, began his career as a "second generation" member of the Dungeon Family collective that included OutKast and Mike, adds his patented boastful vulnerability.
Then there's Mike himself. He needed to bring a stellar performance in order not to be buried by all his very special guests, and he more than pulls it off. "I am Thelonius Monk in a donk," he rhymes, and the combination of the innovative jazz legend and the classic car with big rims perfectly describes not only him, but the entire mood he sets with this song.
The 2024 GRAMMYs, officially known as the 66th GRAMMY Awards, returns to Los Angeles' Crypto.com Arena on Sunday, Feb. 4, 2024, and will broadcast live on the CBS Television Network and stream live and on-demand on Paramount+ at 8-11:30 p.m. ET/5-8:30 p.m. PT.
The Recording Academy and GRAMMY.com do not endorse any particular artist, submission or nominee over another. The results of the GRAMMY Awards, including winners and nominees, are solely dependent on the Recording Academy's Voting Membership.
Photo: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic
GRAMMY Rewind: Kendrick Lamar Honors Hip-Hop's Greats While Accepting Best Rap Album GRAMMY For 'To Pimp a Butterfly' In 2016
Upon winning the GRAMMY for Best Rap Album for 'To Pimp a Butterfly,' Kendrick Lamar thanked those that helped him get to the stage, and the artists that blazed the trail for him.
Updated Friday Oct. 13, 2023 to include info about Kendrick Lamar's most recent GRAMMY wins, as of the 2023 GRAMMYs.
A GRAMMY veteran these days, Kendrick Lamar has won 17 GRAMMYs and has received 47 GRAMMY nominations overall. A sizable chunk of his trophies came from the 58th annual GRAMMY Awards in 2016, when he walked away with five — including his first-ever win in the Best Rap Album category.
This installment of GRAMMY Rewind turns back the clock to 2016, revisiting Lamar's acceptance speech upon winning Best Rap Album for To Pimp A Butterfly. Though Lamar was alone on stage, he made it clear that he wouldn't be at the top of his game without the help of a broad support system.
"First off, all glory to God, that's for sure," he said, kicking off a speech that went on to thank his parents, who he described as his "those who gave me the responsibility of knowing, of accepting the good with the bad."
He also extended his love and gratitude to his fiancée, Whitney Alford, and shouted out his Top Dawg Entertainment labelmates. Lamar specifically praised Top Dawg's CEO, Anthony Tiffith, for finding and developing raw talent that might not otherwise get the chance to pursue their musical dreams.
"We'd never forget that: Taking these kids out of the projects, out of Compton, and putting them right here on this stage, to be the best that they can be," Lamar — a Compton native himself — continued, leading into an impassioned conclusion spotlighting some of the cornerstone rap albums that came before To Pimp a Butterfly.
To Pimp a Butterfly singles "Alright" and "These Walls" earned Lamar three more GRAMMYs that night, the former winning Best Rap Performance and Best Rap Song and the latter taking Best Rap/Sung Collaboration (the song features Bilal, Anna Wise and Thundercat). He also won Best Music Video for the remix of Taylor Swift's "Bad Blood."
Watch Lamar's full acceptance speech above, and check back at GRAMMY.com every Friday for more GRAMMY Rewind episodes.
Photo: Jonathan Mannion
Killer Mike Says His New Album, 'Michael,' Is "Like A Prodigal Son Coming Home"
'Michael,' Killer Mike's first solo album in more than a decade drops June 16. He spoke to GRAMMY.com about creating a portrait of the Southern rap cyphers, Sunday church services, and barbershop discourse that shaped who he is today.
After more than 20 years in hip-hop — as one-half of the supergroup Run The Jewels and also as a solo artist — the Atlanta rapper Killer Mike is ready to make what he calls "a generational statement."
Born Michael Render, the activist rapper's statement comes in the form of his personal "origin story": a 14-song solo album called Michael. The album, Killer Mike’s sixth solo effort, drops June 16 and follows 2012’s R.A.P. Music. In support of the new record, he's touring 19 U.S. cities through Aug. 5.
"I’m one of the best rappers on the face of the earth, and that is authentic. Go to the records. My verses have proved it," Render, 48, told GRAMMY.com. "I’m tired of sitting and waiting for people to say it for me. I’m not waiting, I’m doing it now. My run matters. I’m not gonna die with a woulda been coulda been eulogy."
Michael stands in contrast to the big, bombastic (and less personal) vibe of Run The Jewels, who have released four albums since forming in 2013. While Render's solo outings have always been a mix of bravado and personal, his latest is particularly deep and insightful, dealing with the death of his mother, and his life growing up in the predominantly Black neighborhood Collier Heights, Atlanta.
"There is a character behind Killer Mike that is a whole human being that I’ve always wanted people to meet and introduce so they can understand the nuance of why I am," Render said during an event at SXSW 2023. "It is about helping other human beings understand that I share an experience with you, that you can meet me at, that transcends color, that transcends class, that transcends geographic location, and I meet you right at your humanity."
On Michael, Render puts his guard down. He allows himself to grieve the death of his mother and apologize for selling drugs as a teenager. Throughout the autobiographical album, Render paints a portrait of the southern rap cyphers, Sunday church services, and barbershop discourse that shaped who he is today.
"That Killer Mike character was invented when I was 9. I just wanted to be an MC, and Killer Mike was like me being a superhero," Render tells GRAMMY.com. "But when you hear me talking about my mother, I’m empty now. It’s not sad, but it’s about missing and wanting."
Render’s parents were teenagers when he was born, so he was raised in part by his grandparents in Collier Heights, Atlanta. Render credits the culture of his community with shaping who is today.
"I didn’t grow up with insecurities about race, I grew up in a Black majority," he tells GRAMMY.com. "The closest I got to white people growing up was watching Bob Ross or 'The Wonder Years' on TV. But all my real heroes looked like me."
Render says he never felt inhibited by his Blackness, because Blackness was celebrated in Collier Heights. His community introduced him to Black intellectuals like James Baldwin and Langston Hughes, who also celebrated Blackness. It never occurred to Render to not pursue hip-hop or politics or activism — and he never doubted that he could be an artist or MC.
He first rapped on Atlanta-based hip-hop group Outkast’s 2000 album Stankonia, and launched a solo career soon after. In the 2000s, his songs landed on Billboard charts and the EA Sports "Madden NFL 2004" football video game. Render also did voice over work during the 2000s for Adult Swim and appeared in films like Idlewild and ATL. He guest-rapped on Outkast’s 2003 double album Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, which was nominated for six golden gramophones at the 2004 GRAMMYs and won three, including Album Of The Year.
Two very important relationships forged in the 2010s have done much to shape Render’s trajectory since: one with producer and rapper El-P (the other half of Run The Jewels), the other with Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.
El-P is essentially the yin to Killer Mike’s yang. El-P produced Render's previous solo records, and the two have been collaborating ever since; Killer Mike has called their relationship a "marriage made in heaven." Run The Jewels has toured with Rage Against The Machine and Lorde, opened for Jack White at Madison Square Garden, been nominated for a GRAMMY Award, and won NME’s Best International Band award in 2018. Rolling Stone called Run The Jewels "brash" and added, "If there were a GRAMMY for Most Creative Ways to Say 'We’re the Best,' these guys would win it, or take it by gunpoint."
Render’s political activism kicked into high gear in 2015, first with lectures at NYU and MIT on police brutality, for-profit jails, and racism in America. He made a last-minute — and ultimately unsuccessful — run for a Georgia state representative seat, and he forged an unlikely public friendship with then-presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders. Render told reporters that he and Sanders were "two angry radical guys, one 74 and white, one 40 and Black, finding common ground."
Render took his politics and activism much further. He co-founded an online banking system for Black and Latinx communities alongside former Atlanta mayor and civil rights leader Andrew Young, and has written op-eds in response to the police killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner and the Baltimore uprisings in response to Freddie Gray’s death. On the 2019 Netflix show, "Trigger Warning," Render explored notions of land ownership, gangs, education, and consumerism.
All of his experiences — as a child of the South, as a rapper, and as a political thinker — inform the new album.
"Remember when Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote 'Letter to My Son'? People got a glimpse into Blackhood that wasn’t about absentee fatherhood and other cliches," Render tells GRAMMY.com. "Similarly, my album, even if you haven’t lived my life, it gives you a chance to be a voyeur, and that’s important."
Michael takes its time to unfold; personal subject matter unfolds verse after verse, over laid-back tempos executive produced by No I.D. Somber music provides a bed for Render and guests — among them, Andre 3000, Young Thug, Future, Ty Dolla $ign, Blxst, Curren$y, and Mozzy — to stretch out on. Slightly more aggressive, urgent-sounding songs like opening track "Down By Law" and "Talkin Dat SHIT!," which appears later in the album, are buffered by tunes that could uplift a church congregation.
"It’s imperative that I get that out and introduce people to this buck-toothed kid who grew up with hip-hop, out of wedlock fatherhood," Render says. "This record is like a prodigal son coming home. It’s my generational statement. If August Wilson was writing a rap album, this would be his 'Fences.'"
Photos: Alberto Tamargo; Xavi Torrent/WireImage; Gonzalo Marroquin/Getty Images for REVOLVE; Rachpoot Bauer-Griffin/GC Image; Scott Dudelson/Getty Images; Mike Lewis Photography/Redferns; Jim Bennett/WireImage; Jim Bennett/Getty Images
15 Must-Hear New Albums Out This Month: Janelle Monáe, King Krule, Killer Mike & More
From highly-anticipated debuts to long-awaited returns, check out 15 albums dropping this June from Kim Petras, Amaarae, Foo Fighters and many more.
June is an important moment in the year, as it brings us Pride Month, Black Music Month and Juneteenth. It also marks the official start of summer, where rising temperatures invite late afternoons enjoying good music — whether it’s outdoors at one of the season’s many festivals or in the comfort of your own home.
As for the good music, this month brings us plenty of new releases by queer artists, like Kim Petras' long-awaited debut, Feed The Beast, and the Aces’ I’ve Loved You For So Long. Black musicians have much on offer in June as well, including Janelle Monáe (who is also queer) The Age of Pleasure, house music DJ and producer Jayda G’s Guy, and Ghana-born singer Amaarae’s Fountain Baby. Last but not least, June also marks the return of both Foo Fighters and Lucinda Williams after life-altering events, and the ultimate release of Bob Dylan’s 2021 concert film soundtrack, Shadow Kingdom.
To inspire you further with their bold artistry and moving stories, GRAMMY.com compiled a guide to the 15 must-hear albums dropping June 2023.
Foo Fighters - But Here We Are
Release date: June 2
In dark times, humans often turn to art. Even if they have no answers for what the future holds, the transmuting power of expression reminds us that, sometimes, existing is enough. But Here We Are, Foo Fighters’ 11th studio album, does just that.
After "a year of staggering losses, personal introspection and bittersweet remembrances," as they state in their website — referring to the sudden loss of longtime drummer, Taylor Hawkins, and of frontman Dave Grohl’s mother, Virginia — they find both grievance and strength in what has been called "the first chapter of the band’s new life."
In support of this change, Foo Fighters have announced over 25 performances across the U.S. and Europe in the upcoming months. But Here We Are drops on June 2, and features ten new tracks, including promotional singles "Rescued," "Under You," "Show Me How," and "The Teacher."
Juan Wauters - Wandering Rebel
Release date: June 2
For most of his life, the Uruguay-born, New York-raised singer Juan Wauters was a rover — never for too long in one place. But as he sings on the upcoming titular track of his new album, Wandering Rebel, "During COVID I discovered/ that I like stability."
In a statement, Wauters reflected about moving back to his home country because of the pandemic, and the personal changes that came with it: "New York was the place I always came back to, but I never really had a 'home.' My parents left Uruguay, their home, when I was young. Now, [in Montevideo], I have a place to come home to, and people that are waiting for me."
The 12 songs on Wandering Rebel are defined as "candid reflections on subjects like career, romantic commitment, mental health, and the personal toll of touring," some of which can be seen through singles "Milanesa al Pan (ft. Zoe Gotusso)" and "Modus Operandi (ft. Frankie Cosmos)." As to not lose sight of his itinerant roots, Wauters will embark on a lengthy U.S. tour starting this month.
Bob Dylan - Shadow Kingdom
Release date: June 2
When the COVID-19 pandemic stalled Bob Dylan’s illustrious Never Ending Tour, he decided to baffle the world with something entirely different.
First released in 2021 as a concert film directed by Alma Har'el, Shadow Kingdom sees Dylan perform 14 tracks from the first half of his career in an acoustic, intimate atmosphere. In the setlist, "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" from 1965’s Bringing It All Back Home marks the earliest composition to be featured, while "What Was It You Wanted" from 1989's Oh Mercy is the latest.
With little-to-no prior information, the film originally premiered on livestream platform Veeps, and swiftly disappeared 48 hours after. On June 2, an official soundtrack release will revive the experience for all those who missed it.
Rancid - Tomorrow Never Comes
Release date: June 2
Breaking a six-year absence of new music, California’s boisterous Rancid are back. Tomorrow Never Comes, the band’s tenth album, proves that the verve from one of punk rock’s biggest acts in the mid-1990s is still alive.
Produced by longtime collaborator and Bad Religion guitarist Brett Gurewitz, the record holds 15 tracks, but runs just short of 29 minutes — Rancid’s briefest album yet. But judging by singles "Tomorrow Never Comes," "Don't Make Me Do It," and "Devil in Disguise," quick-paced or not, the quality remains the same.
Right after the release, Rancid will kick off an European tour for the rest of the month, before hitting Canada and a few cities in the U.S. starting September.
The Aces - I’ve Loved You For So Long
Release date: June 2
Pride month celebrations have just gotten the perfect soundtrack: I’ve Loved You For So Long, the Aces’ third studio album, comes out on June 2.
Preceded by the title track and singles "Girls Make Me Wanna Die," "Always Get This Way," and "Solo," the album marks the Utah quartet’s first release since 2020’s LP Under My Influence. According to a press release, I’ve Loved You For So Long is "rife with songs that celebrate their queer identities, juxtaposed by tracks that reflect on their early relationships with Mormonism."
The 11-track collection is also described as "a nostalgic look back at the formative experiences that shaped who they are as a band today, like pages straight from their diaries that will leave their listeners feeling seen and critics wanting more."
Janelle Monáe - The Age of Pleasure
Release date: June 9
Marking her return to music five years after 2018’s Dirty Computer, the chameleonic singer and actor Janelle Monáe ushers in The Age of Pleasure. Her fourth studio album features 14 tracks, including collaborations from Grace Jones, Amaarae, Seun Kuti, and others.
During an interview with Zane Lowe on Apple Music 1, Monáe said all the songs "were written from such an honest space," with the goal of being "so specific to this Pan-African crowd who are my friends. I want it to be a love letter to the diaspora."
If its two delightful singles "Float" and "Lipstick Lover" are any indication, it looks like Monáe has nailed her target — while also providing us a much-needed new era for the summer.
Amaarae - Fountain Baby
Release date: June 9
"Coming back after so long, I had a lot of time to think and reflect on what I wanted my message to be. Last time it was about confidence, this time it’s about love and faith," said Ghanaian-American singer Amaarae in a statement about her single, "Reckless & Sweet."
The mystifying track gives a taste of her upcoming sophomore album, Fountain Baby, set to release on June 9. Following her acclaimed 2020 debut The Angel You Don’t Know, the album also features last month’s cheeky "Co-Star," and points to an expansion of the singer’s avant-garde Afro-pop sound, as well as a celebration of Black women all over the world.
Jayda G - Guy
Release date: June 9
Canadian producer and DJ Jayda G was only 10 years old when she lost her father, William Richard Guy. However, his memories shaped her life in significant ways, and now she is ready to share them with the world through her upcoming studio album, Guy.
Through a press release, Jayda said that she wanted the album to be "a blend of storytelling, about the African American experience, death, grief, and understanding." The singer also added that "it’s about my dad and his story, and naturally in part my story, too, but it’s also about so many people who wanted more for themselves and went on a search to find that. This album is just so much for people who have been oppressed and who have not had easy lives."
The first single of the project, "Circle Back Around," features archival footage of Jayda and her father — an endearing portrait that ultimately delivers an uplifting message. As she explains further in the press release: "I think it’s just a testament that it’s never too late to look at yourself and try to understand why you are the way you are, and strive to be better. Understanding the Black man’s experience, Black people’s experience in terms of America, and rising above what society tells you you’re supposed to be."
King Krule - Space Heavy
Release date: June 9
British singer King Krule was inspired by "the space between" his London and Liverpool commutes — both places he considers home — to craft Space Heavy, his fourth studio album.
Written throughout 2020 to 2022, the record was produced by Dilip Harris, and recorded alongside bandmates Ignacio Salvadores, George Bass, James Wilson, and Jack Towell. In April, the hazy "Seaforth" was released as the album’s first single.
King Krule, whose real name is Archy Marshall, will soon embark on a summer tour spanning North America, Europe, and the UK. The first stop is in Minneapolis on July 21.
Killer Mike - Michael
Release date: June 16
It’s been more than a decade since Killer Mike released a solo album (2012’s R.A.P. Music), but June brings forward new, exciting material from the Atlanta rapper and member of Run the Jewels. Upcoming LP Michael is said to be his "most autobiographical" work so far, and features 14 tracks that depict "an origin story," according to a statement.
2022 singles "RUN" and "Talkin Dat S—!" are also included in the album, as well as this year’s "Don’t Let The Devil" and "Motherless" — whose two music videos form a short film paying homage to Mike’s late mother, Mama Niecy. The rapper is also set to perform a 19-stop tour in the U.S. this summer.
Home Is Where - the whaler
Release date: June 16
Florida emo band Home Is Where built a reputation for delivering catharsis through their gloomy lyrics and angry melodies. Their upcoming sophomore LP, the whaler, takes that up a notch: It was defined as a project about "getting used to things getting worse" in a press release.
Produced by Jack Shirley and containing 10 interconnected songs, the whaler "paints a bleak picture of a world in an endless state of collapse — of ruined utopias and desperate people faking normalcy — [but] there’s a humanity-affirming undercurrent throughout that screams to break free."
Ahead of the release, the band shared the lead single "yes! yes! a thousand times yes!," and is currently gearing up for a U.S. tour through the East Coast and Midwest in July and the West Coast in September.
Kim Petras - Feed the Beast
Release date: June 23
The much-awaited debut LP of German singer Kim Petras, Feed the Beast, finally has a birth date: June 23. After struggling with the leaking and eventual scrapping of would-have-been album Problématique, Petras compiled 15 tracks for this new effort — including last year’s mega hit "Unholy" featuring Sam Smith, which earned them both a GRAMMY Award for Best Pop Duo/Group Performance.
In an interview with Vice, the singer said Feed the Beast marks "a transition from being an independent artist to being at a major label now. Spearheaded by singles "If Jesus Was a Rockstar," "Brrr," and lead single "Alone" featuring Nicki Minaj, Petras will celebrate the release with a performance at NBC’s TODAY Citi Concert Series, as well as live sets at Governor’s Ball in NYC and Life is Beautiful Festival in Las Vegas.
Lunice - OPEN
Release date: June 23
Described as a project that "focuses on the natural human ability and behavior of intuition, instinct, openness, flexibility, and adaptation," and also as "a bizarre ride through the Montreal underground," OPEN is the sophomore album by Canadian producer and TNGHT member, Lunice.
Following up his 2017 acclaimed solo debut, CCCLX, the new record aims to be even more dynamic, with every track conceived to be performed live. Featuring collaborations with Cali Cartier, Zach Zoya, Yuki Dreams Again, DAGR and GRAMMY-winning producer DRTWRK, OPEN drops on June 23.
"No Commas," the pulsating first single off the project, sets the mood to the upcoming folly. "This track is the result of multiple natural occurrences where the melody, drums, and vocal performance coincidentally fit with each other in the moment of creation without any prior motive behind it," Lunice said in a statement. "I find these instinctual moments of creativity beautiful and inspiring."
Maisie Peters - The Good Witch
Release date: June 23
British singer/songwriter Maisie Peters calls herself The Good Witch — the "keeper of the keys and the holder of the cards" to her own universe, soon on display through her upcoming second album.
Written last year while she was on tour, Peters explains that its 15 tracks represent a time when she was "searching for balance between career highs and personal lows," a quality that can be seen through "Body Better," the album’s acutely honest lead single.
"This is my heart and soul, my blood on the page, the collection of stories that I’ve managed to capture in the past year," said Peters. "A true chronicle of my life in recent history, it is my own twisted version of a breakup album and it all draws upon the same couple of months’ worth of experiences and inspirations."
The singer is also set to tour 27 cities in the U.S. and Canada from August to October.
Lucinda Williams - Stories From a Rock n Roll Heart
Release date: June 30
Lucinda Williams is living proof that getting older doesn’t mean getting duller. The Americana legend just celebrated her 70th birthday in January — and the last three years of her life have been some of the most tumultuous yet.
In 2020, her Nashville home was damaged by a tornado. Then, came the COVID-19 pandemic. And lastly, a stroke that affected her ability to play the guitar, therefore changing the way she writes songs. But Williams didn’t let any of that stop her — Stories from a Rock n Roll Heart, her 15th studio album, comes out on June 30, and shows that she’s only getting better.
The project already has three singles out: "New York Comeback," "Stolen Moments," and "Where the Song Will Find Me," and counts on backing vocals from artists like Bruce Springsteen, Patti Scialfa, and Angel Olsen.