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ATLANTA — Don’t let the villainous stage name, the big-man baritone or the rap bluster fool you: Killer Mike is a crier.
The man born Michael Render — a trash-talking musician, activist, organizer, father of four and political punching bag who also hits back — has a knack, in song and speech, for righteous fury. But these days, nearing 50 and closer than ever to self-actualization, it’s when the tears start flowing that Killer Mike knows he is really gathering momentum, saying what needs to be said.
“You’re a musician, you get rich and start doing all kinds of crazy stuff like drinking green juice in the morning,” he explained last month, the day after his 48th birthday, during a particularly tearful conversation charting his recent path to more openness and acceptance. “Then your wife convinces you to go see a therapist.”
Always a searcher with plenty of self-awareness, Mike had a read on many of his own issues already. Yet therapy sessions with a Black woman, in particular, taught him that “there’s nothing wrong with a lot of the inclinations you have because of how you were raised,” Mike said. “But you got to get to the bottom of who you are, to understand the whys.”
That was when he started looking in the mirror, a process of personal excavation and revelation documented across “Michael,” the first Killer Mike solo album in 11 years, out June 16. “Face to face with fate had to face my fears,” he raps on “Shed Tears,” one especially raw new song. “It was me/I’m the reason that I failed/that was hell.”
“When you finally get that out,” Mike said, “that’s one of the most burden-lifting moments.”
The fact that he had been holding anything back — and especially out of his music, which has tended, over the last decade, toward the galvanizing war cries of his boisterous duo Run the Jewels — might be tough to imagine for those who have followed Killer Mike’s prolific, idiosyncratic career of more than 20 years. Yet even after hundreds of rap verses, his time as a television host, a Bernie Sanders surrogate and a go-to cultural ambassador for the city of Atlanta, there was plenty that he was still keeping to himself.
It wasn’t until late in the process of recording “Michael,” for example, that he realized he had never spoken aloud — let alone recorded — some simple words that were so foundational to the man he had become: My mama dead. My grandmama dead.
A complex portrait of Southern Black masculinity, the album details the life of a proud patriarch somewhere near peace through the stories and lessons of the women who shepherded him: his grandmother Bettie Clonts, who raised him and died in 2012, and his mother, Denise Clonts, or Niecy, who had him at 16 and died in 2017.
“I’m not absent men in my life, but there’s something about that matriarchal love that my grandmother and my mother gave me that has allowed me to embrace my humanity more,” Mike said. On the album’s centerpiece “Motherless,” in which he confronts their influence and absence, he raps of all he has achieved, addressing them directly: “A Black boy born to a teen momma, momma/gets regarded as a leader by his people, momma.”
“This album was about finally controlling my own narrative, not being an artist-in-proxy,” Mike said, noting that he had always been attached to others — a one-time protégé of Outkast; a sidekick to T.I.; a partner in crime to El-P in Run the Jewels. Because while being one of rap’s top character actors had afforded him a steady flow of supporting roles, “I needed to do my film before the curtains closed on me.”
A lifetime devotee of comic books, Mike likened “Michael” to a superhero’s origin story — the Logan to his usual Wolverine. Crucially, the setting for his ups and downs has always been Atlanta, a city “where all the heroes and villains look like me,” Mike said, counting civil rights icons and kingpins among his mentors.
“My neighborhood had everything from working-class Black people like my grandparents to the bootleggers, the numbers man, Morehouse coaches to the Herman Russell family,” he explained. “I’m a culmination of that whole Black experience. I guess for people who still don’t have a proper understanding of Atlanta, I am Harlem as a ghetto and its renaissance in one human being.”
Denise embodied this dichotomy as well. “She was an artist,” Mike said — a florist and music-lover who hosted bohemian hangouts. “But she was also a drug trafficker.” Two weeks before Mike turned 15, she was arrested, he said, along with a boyfriend, while transporting 10 kilos of cocaine from south of the city. (The man claimed responsibility and took the fall, Mike said.)
So it was Denise whom Mike visited a few years later when he was bristling at his Morehouse College work-study job and hoping to get into drug dealing instead. “It’s not what a son should ask a mother,” he said, but she made the necessary introductions anyway. “And I went to work.”
This wasn’t the life that his grandmother — the daughter of sharecroppers from Tuskegee, Ala., a member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and a steely advocate for education and religion — had wanted for him, especially after he dropped out of college.
“But my business bought me the music equipment that got me the demo made that got us the street tapes we sold during Freaknik that got Big Boi’s attention that got me a record deal,” Mike said, referring to his journey through the Atlanta party and nightlife circuit. And it was Big Boi, of Outkast, who eventually asked him outright: “What you want to do, you want to be a dope dealer, or you want to be a rapper?”
Then and there, Mike picked his craft. “I didn’t want to be looking over my shoulder, I didn’t want to be straddling the fence, working two worlds,” he said.
Yet despite winning a Grammy for his first-ever appearance on a single, Killer Mike’s career as a major-label leading man faltered as the music business started to crater in the mid-2000s. Too socially conscious for the mainstream and too gangster for the backpack crowd, Mike became a creature of the mixtape underground, piecing together projects to survive as an artist and a father.
It wasn’t until his 2012 album, “R.A.P. Music,” which paired Mike with another independent journeyman, the producer and M.C. El-P, that a creative breakthrough became a critical, and then a commercial, one. The next year, the pair released “Run the Jewels,” announcing a duo that would make them industry anomalies: rappers who gained relevance and appetite with age.
“Run the Jewels reinvigorated my love and want for rap that was not out of necessity,” Mike said. “I’m supposed to have been decimated from a confidence standpoint. But something has always told me, don’t give up.”
A fixture at music festivals and on soundtracks (“Booksmart,” “The Big Short,” “Black Panther” ), Run the Jewels also made him rich, finally. “I remember the first time I woke up a millionaire,” Mike said, placing the moment somewhere after the release of the second Run the Jewels album in 2014. “But it was right around tax season. And then I was a $600,000-aire.”
The success of the group allowed Mike and his wife, Shana Render, to diversify their wealth into small businesses and real estate, especially rental properties, a move he said he learned from Outkast. But the specific tenor of Run the Jewels’ chest-puffing and moral certitude, plus Mike’s civil-rights upbringing and natural loquaciousness, also turned him into an authoritative public brand of his own, a truth-telling talking head who came to represent an insular community on an international scale.
Such status afforded Killer Mike endless media appearances, a turn as a polarizing Bernie surrogate in 2016 and a Netflix documentary series called “Trigger Warning.” But the problem with becoming a spokesman against the system in a time of upheaval, especially as a proudly heterodox thinker, is that eventually, to some, you represent the system itself.
In recent years, Killer Mike has become a target for a certain type of leftist criticism, especially from Black activists and anticapitalists, who decried his emotional admonishment of protesters after the killing of George Floyd in 2020; his interview about the importance of Black gun ownership to NRATV in the wake of the Parkland school shooting; or his chumminess with Georgia’s Republican governor, Brian Kemp.
“There are people who live to disagree and to catch a celebrity, especially, in the wrong,” Mike said, defiant as ever. “But I’ve been an activist way longer than I’ve been a successful rapper. You’re having arguments and debates that I was having at 16 years old.”
“You’re a child to me — and I don’t mean that in an insulting way. You’re just so young,” he continued, growing heated even as he gestured toward empathy. “You don’t understand the nuance of give and get. You don’t understand the nuance of politics, of bartering. There is no winning team.”
“I don’t have time to win debates,” he added, echoing the purposeful lack of nuance of “Talk’n That ___ ,” one of the most confrontational tracks on “Michael.”
Overall, however, the album, which was born of cathartic necessity during Covid, seeks understanding, not further division. Following a fierce bout with the virus early on, Mike realized, “I have to present something in these times that’s not weak and feeble or exploitive and aimless. I have to present something from Atlanta that shows the tradition of thought and lyricism and wit and soul and gospel — what Dungeon Family brought to the game, what Curtis Mayfield gave them, and what Outkast and Goodie Mob ushered into the world.”
“And at the same time, acknowledge what’s going on now,” he added.
Cuz Lightyear, a longtime friend and collaborator, recalled realizing in the studio that it was the first time he had seen Killer Mike recording from a place of freedom and happiness. “He never got to have that moment as a solo artist, where his back wasn’t against the wall and he wasn’t creating out of desperation,” Lightyear said. “For the first time, we were going to do it right. If it ain’t for money, you can get on an album and tell the truth.”
Mike’s truth just happened to come with contradictions. In addition to guest appearances by Goodie Mob’s Cee-Lo Green and the reclusive Andre 3000 of Outkast, “Michael” also features Young Thug and Mozzy, both of whom are currently incarcerated on weapons charges.
“It’s a reflection of Black masculinity at this moment, of who we are and what we are,” Mike said. “I’m not different than Mozzy or Thug. I’m not above them. That’s part of the misunderstanding or disconnect with me. People would like for me to pick the safety of backpack or being a conscious rapper. I’ve never not been honest with you, but I didn’t understand how to give you a balanced representation of me. I let the market dictate which me you saw.”
Mike believes it is no coincidence that his clarity of vision and greatest blessings came only after his grandmother and mother left this earth. With his ancestors working on his behalf, he said, “Everything has opened up and blossomed.”
Now, he thinks back to the late nights when he would pull up unannounced in Denise’s driveway, and they would sit on his truck bed, stare into the sky and talk for hours.
“I remember her literally telling me, ‘You think my mama’s your mama. But that’s my mama. And one day when I die, you’re going to understand’” — to comprehend what it took for a 16-year-old girl to step aside and let her mother raise her son. “To be judged like that, to be villainized,” he said. “Goddamn, girl.”
He gets it now, looking at the family and career he has built on that intricate foundation. “People always say to me, you’ve got so much going on, you’re always running,” Mike said. “But I just feel like I’ve got something to do. I don’t know where the journey’s taking me, but I know God got me on a journey. I’ve got a purpose, and I’d be a fool not to see it all the way through.”
Audio produced by Tally Abecassis.
A correction was made on
May 19, 2023
An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of Killer Mike’s wife. She is Shana Render, not Shayna.
How we handle corrections
Joe Coscarelli is a culture reporter with a focus on popular music, and the author of “Rap Capital: An Atlanta Story.” @joecoscarelli
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