Killer Mike’s mass in B minor

The Grammy winning rapper performs with the National Symphony Orchestra of Washington, D.C.

Rapper Killer Mike
Rapper Killer Mike, on May 21, on stage at the Kennedy Center Symphony Hall, accompanied by the National Symphony Orchestra.Julian Thomas
Iker Seisdedos

Drunk DJs, off-key vocals, embarrassing shows... hip-hop fans are used to dealing with disappointment. That’s why the event at Washington’s Kennedy Center, a temple of music and performing arts on the banks of the Potomac, on May 21 was a special occasion as trending rapper Killer Mike performed with the National Symphony Orchestra (NSO).

An Atlanta hip-hop icon, Killer Mike took full advantage of the invitation from an institution that has in the past hosted other rappers such as Nas, Kendrick Lamar and Common. Besides the orchestra, which played Killer Mike’s latest album, Michael (2023), the rapper was accompanied by five backing singers in robes, a pianist who doubled as organist, a bassist and a drummer, as well as a gospel choir and a DJ, who launched the beats from a mixing desk on an altar of props. In that respect, too, the concert was different from the classic hip-hop show, in which the frontmen usually have a hard time filling the space: with so many people on stage, Killer Mike could scarcely move.

The altar was not the only religious reference in the show, nor was it the first time the Kennedy Center had used Christian liturgy: the concert that inaugurated the center in 1971 was the theatrical MASS that Leonard Bernstein composed for the occasion. Killer Mike approached his evening as a tribute to the church and gospel music, two elements central to the African-American experience.

Killer Mike, durante su actuación en el Kennedy Center, en Washington, del pasado 21 de mayo.
Killer Mike, during his performance at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. on May 21.Julian Thomas

There were flowers and a choir, and Killer Mike referred to Sunday mass as an essential part of his upbringing as well as being the main source of inspiration for the lyrics of his latest album, which has earned him not only three Grammy awards, but also an arrest the night he received them, after an altercation with an “overzealous” security guard. Michael was his first solo work after 12 years of concentrating on the Run the Jewels project, a political hip-hop duo with producer EL-P, one of the most interesting acts on the scene today.

For Michael’s cover, the rapper and occasional actor chose a photo of himself as a child, with a halo and devil’s ears. The album is, to quote Nas, “a trip down memory lane,” as well as a treatise on the contradictions of fame and wealth, and a proposal for the deconstruction of contemporary Black male masculinity, albeit a tempered one: in one of the album’s photos, Killer Mike has not deemed it too toxically ‘masculine’ to be surrounded by half-naked women. The album is, above all, a tribute to his mother and grandmother. Both got a mention several times during the concert. And there was a shout-out too to his opera teacher and the rest of his high school teachers, indicating again that Michael Render, who has just turned 49, seems to have become entangled in a nostalgic mid-life crisis.

A legend

The orchestra was conducted by Steven Reineke, who replaced the principal conductor, Gianandrea Noseda, for the occasion. Before Killer Mike emerged on stage, Reineke introduced him as “an Atlanta legend” and recalled that NSO is the only lineup of its kind to consistently come up with “meaningful collaborations” with rappers. Killer Mike, who was 20 minutes late, returned the compliment when they dusted off an old song from his early days, Never Scared (2003), which he co-wrote with Bone Crusher. As Reineke reproduced the unhinged sound of that classic Southern hip-hop track, Killer Mike looked at him with admiration and, instead of hailing him as “maestro,” he threw him this compliment: “You’re a real motherfucker!”

The night had begun with the first song on the album, Down By Law, and the first bars that sounded actually came from the string arrangements composed by soul singer Curtis Mayfield for his hymn We the People Who Are Darker Than Blue, which Killer Mike samples. There followed songs like Two Days, Get Some Money, Shed Tears and Ric Flair, named after the famous WWF wrestler, and in which Pau Gasol appears. That song was played in the second part of the two-hour evening, after a 20-minute intermission: not a standard feature of hip-hop concerts. Nor is it usual to see such an audience at a Kennedy Center recital: young, mostly African-Americans dressed stylishly for the occasion, and oozing an enviable self-confidence.

Killer Mike’s latest album, which was played in its entirety, is full of Atlanta rap star cameos, from CeeLo Green to Future, and Young Thug to André 3000 of the duo Outkast. Killer Mike apologized to the latter when the orchestra tackled Scientists & Engineers. “I didn’t have the budget to bring him,” he said. Perhaps he couldn’t have been in Washington that day in any case: the legendary MC is touring the U.S., focusing on new-age songwriting, to which he has dedicated an album in which he trades the microphone for the flute.

Killer Mike, segundo por la derecha, saluda al final del concierto agarrado a sus coristas, con el director de orquesta Steven Reineke al fondo, el pasado martes en el Kennedy Center, en Washington.
Killer Mike, second from the right, waves at the end of the concert with conductor Steven Reineke in the background at the Kennedy Center in Washington.

Big Boi, the other half of OutKast, was present thanks to his collaboration on Tarantino-inspired Kill Bill. And comedian Dave Chappelle’s voice was heard in the recording of the monologue that opens Run, in which he compares the “experience of being Black in America” to taking the beaches at Normandy: “Mike, the one thing about being a nigga in America, it’s like storming the beach in Normandy. A guy gets popped, another guy goes, another guy falls. You just gotta keep going, gotta keep storming that beach, nigga, you gotta keep runnin’.”

Killer Mike is supposed to have considerable influence in the African-American community, especially in Atlanta, and he uses it to support Senator Bernie Sanders in his truncated path to the White House, as well as to meet with Georgia’s Republican Governor Brian Kemp. These contradictions have earned him some criticism. His role of agitator of consciences was, however, less apparent during the concert than that of self-help guru (as when he said: “If I did not have a dollar in my pocket, I would feel just as rich”) or preacher using biblical references despite claims to have renounced the Christian faith.

He also mentioned his mother’s death in Motherless; his 16-year-old girlfriend, who had to have an abortion, in Slummer; and his aunt’s crack addiction in Something for Junkies. After such a retrospective on the triumphs and tribulations of a “kid who grew up on the west side of Atlanta,” Killer Mike blurted to a rapt audience: “See how far I’ve come?” It sounded like James Cagney in the unforgettable final sequence of the film noir classic White Heat: “Made it, Ma! Top of the world!”

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