By Steve Weinstein
By Bryan Bierman
By Lindsey Rhoades
By Chaz Kangas
By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
By Jena Ardell
By Jesse Sendejas Jr.
By Katherine Turman
A lifetime ago, Mike Bigga was mostly known as Big Boi's strip-club-frequenting sidekick. He called himself Killer Mike then, and his biggest moment in the spotlight was snarling, "I lick my blunts and spit/Like she do my dick" on Outkast's "Snappin' and Trappin'." Things are different now. Having spent the past five years doggedly plowing through the independent-rap wilderness, Bigga has emerged as someone else entirely: a titan of Atlanta's hip-hop underground, a proudly independent artist who can pull superstars like T.I., Young Jeezy, and Gucci Mane into his orbit just by virtue of his massive reputation.
In the process, he has also shown himself to be the best kind of rap spokesperson. Bigga, who "went to fuckin' Morehouse, nigga," as he memorably snarled at us on 2006's "That's Life," straddles the middle-class bourgeois and the hard-headed street-rap worlds with effortless, barber-shop-dude aplomb. He can speak his mind on just about anything at this point, without fear that he's letting any of his various constituencies behind. It's the folk-hero balancing act David Banner has been striving to perfect ever since he wrote "Cadillac on 22s"; Bigga makes it look easy as breathing.
Pl3dge, the third volume in his celebrated I Pledge Allegiance to the Grind series, finds him refining this role to moonshine potency. Invective aimed at figures like Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, and the police who shot Oscar Grant rubs up against the strip-club songs ("Go Out on the Town") and the fuck-the-club-up songs ("Animal"). But Mike's political rhymes never feel like the homework before recess; instead, they sound like someone who has kicked the town-hall door down and begun screaming what everyone was thinking. Mike is the rare contemporary rapper who grows more powerful and sure-footed the more political he dares to become.
In Mike's hands, the rant is a purification tool, and it has an exhilarating, coruscating power: "In America, the crooks get the castles/Never see a Rothschild or a Rockefeller shackled/While Rockefeller drug laws keep us in the shackle/Eventually, this weed will be as legal as tobacco/By then hope every CEO be a black, tho/Here's a message to the felon: Keep sellin', my brethren," he sneers on "American Dream." In "That's Life II," he unleashes this dizzying torrent: "Mr. Beck, Mr. O'Reilly, Mr. Limbaugh, Mr. Hannity/How could you sell white America your insanity?/You tell 'em that they're different and manipulate their vanity/When truthfully financially their lives are a calamity . . . convincin' em that rich Republicans is what they gonna be/So they act like Ronald Reagan and like him, they awful actors/Who look up to the rich like dumb kids look up to rappers."
It's scorched-earth screeds like these that have earned Killer Mike his "modern-day Ice Cube" comparisons, but he's aiming even higher on Pl3dge. "Burn" rides the punishing snare kick of Funkadelic's "You and Your Folks, Me and My Folks," and Mike fills the gaping spaces between the beat with his most calmly focused rage ever, airing out the police, the economy, and the church in a series of short, compressed verses, interspersed with the simple chant "I WILL BURN. THIS MOTHER. FUCKER. DOWN." It's revolution music, and it's easy to close your eyes and imagine the anarchic-uprising montage it could soundtrack.
It would be a disservice to Mike to suggest that he only serves Molotov cocktails, though. "Ric Flair," with its slick soul loop and samples of the titular wrestler screaming maniacally about The Good Life, is a smooth Long Island Iced Tea of NYC braggadocio, while the Gucci Mane–featured, Lex Luger–aping "Animal" provides the PCP-laced Red Bull. Mike is a skilled enough craftsman that all of it works; he does everything well. But he does firebrand better than everyone, and the tracks in which he lets loose are the ones that resonate. Mike's brand of capital-T Truth is in short supply in rap these days, and the world is momentarily a smarter, better place when he speaks his mind.