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Album of the Year: Killer Mike, ‘Michael’

SPIN’s editors consumed a huge variety of music in 2023, resulting in an eclectic year-end list of favorites ranging from former Chairlift member Caroline Polacheck’s alt-pop masterpiece Desire, I Want to Turn Into You to the Church’s psych-rock laden The Hypnogogue and Mandy, Indiana’s experimental i’ve seen a way to Sufjan Stevens’ intimate Javelin.

However, when it came time to pick our album of the year, Killer Mike’s Michael stood out above the rest. From the moment he debuted many of the songs at a special SPIN showcase at Stubb’s BBQ during SXSW, it was impossible not to notice the care, passion, rawness and brutal honesty within the Run the Jewels rapper’s lyrics. Add to that strong production by No I.D., a who’s who of special guests (André 3000, 6lack, Ty Dolla $ign, Future, Young Thug and Run the Jewels partner El-P) and you have a recipe for the best album of his career.

Here’s what our founder and Acting Editor in Chief, Bob Guccione, Jr., has to say about Michael, which was released in June through Loma Vista Recordings.

(Credit: Shane Smith)

I’m not a fan of most rap, and of what I do like I prefer old school to new. 

I love Michael though—it’s the freshest rap record I’ve heard in decades. It’s aurally inventive, blending classic R&B singing to rapid-fire, sharp raps and gospel music (and some pertinent dialogue samples). “Down By Law (ft. CeeLo Green)” is one of the songs of the year in my (simple if not humble) opinion. (And the video is brilliant.) “Shed Tears (ft. Mozzy, Lena Byrd Miles)” and “Slummer (ft. Jagged Edge)” could be time travel visits from Curtis Mayfield and Sister Rosetta Tharpe. (These would be good visits.)

Every track is extraordinary, and he blends in some sensational cameos, including Young Thug, André 3000, 6lack, CeeLo Green, Ty Dolla $ign, and Dave Chapelle. 

On “Talk’n That Shit!” he bitch-slaps his detractors, rapping with menace: “Niggas talk to me about that woke-ass shit (Yeah) / Same niggas walkin’ on some broke-ass shit.” He gets meaner from there. Deliciously.

Mike has several messages on this album—one is speaking directly to the complacent and the defeatist/defeated, where he says, basically, rise up. His idea is not the fantasy of a violent revolution but, more doably, if you don’t let yourself be defeated, you win. 

Killer Mike
(Credit: Shane Smith)

Mike has always had a social and political streak in his work, whether solo or as half of Run the Jewels, and, to understate, he says what he thinks. He does not hold back. He speaks truth as he sees it, people’s sensitive sensibilities be damned. He steamrolls those fools. One idiotic reviewer, on Pitchfork, after acknowledging that Mike has positive initiatives for his Georgia communities with food drives and his local black businesses, chastises him for his “inopportune meeting with Georgia’s Republican governor,” for trying to work within in the system politically, and for his “less than ideal optics”—as if who he’s photographed with undermines his good works. What blathering dreck! To realistically—not idealistically, impossibly—beat the system, you have to at least be on the same playing field.

Michael is for Killer Mike’s given name, and the album as a concept is partly about returning to some of the innocence of the child influentially raised in the church. It’s a rich album. It’s the real deal. Best of the year.