Disco!, the latest release from the experimental New York rapper MIKE, builds upon his somber but virtuosic style, exploring new lyrical and musical terrain through the honest lens of his writing and his burgeoning talents as a beatmaker. His previous releases, weight of the world in 2019 and tears of joy in 2020, were in direct response to the loss of his mother, captured in heart-wrenching voicemails and pointed descriptions of life’s inconvenient truths. Though this grief still features prominently on Disco!, the progression of both his sorrow and his musical technique can be traced across the album’s diverse tracks.
At the age of 22, MIKE has emerged as a leading figure in underground hip-hop, drawing on the dense lyricism and measured delivery of artists like MF DOOM and Earl Sweatshirt to convey the looping, layered messages of his songs. MIKE’s verses are concentric circles, scenes of everyday life wrapped around each other to reveal the underlying pattern. “On that strange ave where I used to lay raps, hungry/so we ate half, brother on the train pack something/ to evade sad, truth is I relate,” he rhymes on the album’s first single “Evil Eye,” seamlessly connecting his hunger for success to his actual hunger, to the stress and coping mechanisms such lacking creates.
This lyrical talent and sharp storytelling earned him a nod from his inspiration and now personal friend Sweatshirt, who shouted MIKE out on his 2018 album Some Rap Songs and contributed a verse on weight of the world. MIKE has also shared production credits and cosigns with like-minded artists Mavi, Navy Blue, and Maxo, also known for their pensive lyrics and avant-garde ear for production.
Beyond his rapping, MIKE produces under the alias dj blackpower, dropping two tapes, BLP2020: King of the Night and BLP2021: for ur own good in the last two years. Disco! is entirely produced by this alter-ego, packed with grainy, textured samples that loop and leap around MIKE’s heavy-voiced lyrics. The instrumental on “Endgame” is a key example, consisting only of a chopped piano sample that sounds like it was played on a dust-stuffed keyboard and recorded over an old intercom.
However, the album also sees some of MIKE’s most uplifting production and playful flows yet. “alarmed!,” featuring regular collaborator Sideshow sits atop upbeat drums and a vocal sample that stutters into itself like the list of hopes Mike collages into a chorus. “at thirst sight by Assia,” reminiscent of the guest-vocalist interludes scattered throughout DOOM’s discography, is fast-paced and fresh, lifted by high-floating strings and Assia’s breathy vocals. On the lyrical end, “Aww (Zaza)” sees him laughing through the track’s confident, almost boastful chorus: “Stuck in the midst of it all/Struggling? Mmh, nah.”
It’s hard to draw conclusions from this shift towards these lighter, even catchy songs which are hopeful if not joyous. Even on the aforementioned chorus, MIKE confesses: “All of the shit I been juggling?/Large.” The titular disco ball which he holds above his face on the LP’s cover is blurred, distorted by its own colorful brightness. There is little closure to the grief of his prior releases beyond the encouraging words immortalized in a voicemail on the intro to “Ghoulish,” and the solemn acceptance on “Sandra”; “Mama showed me and my sis right, gotta do the same/I guess that’s just how it is right.”
Nonetheless, the album represents an impressive development upon what is already one of the most compelling sounds in rap. MIKE’s technique has always had to grow in tandem with his emotions, picking them apart in his verses and pulling them from dusty samples. Through it all, he remains true to himself, with the assurance of loved ones and idols, and the promise of a better tomorrow.