The Damon Albarn Appreciation Society is a series of twenty focused observations, conversations, and thoughts about music. This is the eighteenth. Spending some time writing about what I don’t like about the political music of dead prez got me thinking about what I do like in terms of political music. One name came to mind almost immediately: Killer Mike.
Minutes from previous meetings of the Society: The Beatles – “Eleanor Rigby”, Tupac – Makaveli, Blur – 13 (with Graeme McMillan), Blur – Think Tank (with Graeme McMillan), Black Thought x Rakim: “Hip-Hop, you the love of my life”, Wu-Tang Clan – Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), On why I buy vinyl sometimes, on songs about places, Mellowhype’s Blackendwhite, a general post on punk, a snapshot of what I’m listening to, on Black Thought blacking out on “75 Bars”, how I got into The Roots, on Betty Wright and strong songs, on screw music, on Goodie MOb’s “The Experience”, on blvck gxds and recurring ideas
If you want my personal gold standard for political rap, it’s gotta be Killer Mike, and more specificaly, his I Pledge Allegiance to the Grind II. “Pressure” is extraordinarily hard and as blatantly political as Mike gets on this album:
Here’s the intro to the album:
This is not your regular rap album. This is meant to be a soundtrack to your success, brother. A soundtrack to your success, sister. This is right now, real-time music, what the fuck is happening. What ain’t happening is the bullshit lies you been going through. What ain’t happening is the bad examples you been following. You see, the Grind believes in you because we know you believe in us, therefore we don’t bullshit you. Nuh-uh. I wanna see whoever’s buying this record win right now and do great things. But the only way you gonna do that is if you get up off your ass and get about the act of doing something. Grind Time Rap Gang, fucker, bang bang bang. You can never lead if you only follow. What I mean is, if you sit around, and you look at people, and you wait for them to give you permission to do something great, you will never do anything, so get up, brothers! Get about your grind! If you have a boss, maybe you should fire your boss. Maybe you should change your life. Your work ethic will determine your worth, meaning whatever you get is determined by how hard you work to get it. You understand what I’m telling you right now? What I’m saying is there’s nothing in the world that can stop you from achieving whatever it is you wanna achieve. And I want you to let I Pledge Allegiance to the Grind Part II be a soundtrack to your success. Until we meet again on that path of getting to the money… it’s Grind Time Rap Gang. Bang. Bang. Bang. C’mon, let’s go!
What I like about Pledge II is that I can hear a lot of Tupac in it. Pac is still probably my favorite rapper, just because he got it so well. He got it better than anybody else. He understood that you can play a role and still kick knowledge. Son didn’t have a criminal record until he rapped about having one. But he still managed to kick rhymes that had everybody relating to him. He was an everyman, in a way. I don’t mean that he was himself just like the rest of us — he clearly wasn’t, for better or worse — but he understood the value of theater and played a lot of roles. He made “Dear Mama” and “Wonda Why They Call U Bitch.” He rapped about living the fast life and being so depressed he wanted to kill himself. He was everyone, and that’s why he clicked so hard. It’s not that he was conscious or a thug or loved his mom or could spin a sex song. It’s that he was all of that in one.
Mike stepped into that role for me. I’ve liked Mike for years, ever since he hit the beat running like Randy Moss on his feature on OutKast’s “The Whole World,” and I love that he’s grown into this quietly revolutionary figure. Pledge II runs a range of subject matter. He pretty much hits every rap cliche but how much he loves his mom, I think. No, that’s not true: “Grandma’s House” counts there. Civic pride (“2 Sides”), fly rides (“Big Money, Big Cars”), drug dealing (“Good-Bye (City of Dope)”), and on and on. He glorifies drug dealing, stripping, big cars, education, looking out for your family, protecting yourself, and self-esteem. He touches on the power, occasional hypocrisy, and shortcomings of religion. He’s running through a wide range of experiences.
But what makes this political for me is that it’s an entire album not about how ill Mike is but how important it is to grind and get your own. It’s about being self-actualized, loyal, honest, and willing to do what you need to do to survive. On a very fundamental level, it’s about loving yourself because society hates your guts. You have to look out for yourself, your family, and your community.
His point of view is pointedly black southern and post-Reagan, too. The mistrust of authority, the matter-of-fact approach to the way crack ravaged the black community, an emphasis on money but a conscious knowledge of the evils that come from chasing it, and black power themes present on the album all scream that at me. Even the Grind Time Rap Gang stuff is part marketing and part motivation. You’ve gotta make money for yourself if you ever want to have anything of your own.
That’s the sort of political music I can get behind. It’s honest, direct, and if it came down to it, you could dance to it. Throw some elbows or groove, whatever you want. Killer Mike has demonstrated growth in his sound, but also in his politics and prejudices. I listen to Mike and I hear somebody who knows the game and is working to both fit in where he can get in and make things better, which sounds like a lot of people I know and look up to.
I go back to this album regularly. It’s motivation music. I went and checked last.fm to see if I could see how often, and came up with this image:
I was actually surprised to see “Grandma’s House” at number one, but I do love that song. (“If she catch me serving hard, it’s gon’ break my nana’s heart, so I take them bricks, I cut ‘em quick and hit the boulevard,” whooo) I figured that “Pressure” would be number one, but I’m okay with this result. It’s a powerful album, and there’s something that I can take away from every song. It’s intensely political without being in the dead prez or Immortal Technique vein of things. Mike is just talking about what he believes and what he knows. It’s real life rap, like Tupac used to kick, and I appreciate that. I feel like if I can’t apply your revolutionary or progressive or conservative or whichever philosophy to my real life, then it’s worthless. It’s not even hot air, because hot air actually has a use. Theory doesn’t do me any good.
“Burn” is a joint off Killer Mike’s Pl3dge. It’s sort of a sequel to “Pressure,” like how “Pressure” was sort of a sequel to “Bad Day/Worst Day.” If I had to use a song to pin down how I feel about a lot of stuff going down in America over the past few years… it’d probably be this joint.