One standard of measurement for live rap music is how well an artist can entertain fans in the strangest or least-ideal of situations. Put another way: How comfortable they seem with their artistic merit to make a small room jump around and sing along. Killer Mike did this for about 50 people in Pearl Street’s clubroom last Friday night. Lesser artists might scoff at the low turnout, mail in a show, and hop on their tour bus never to return again. Killer Mike did not. While plenty of coeds filed into the upstairs ballrooom for Rubblebucket, a small conclave leaned against the downstairs bar and stage and waited patiently through a few capable openers for the Atlanta-bred MC to appear.
The rapper strutted onto the stage and launched into “Big Beast,” the opening track from this year’s R.A.P. Music. He rapped through it with the same gall and tenacity and lyrical dexterity that’s made R.A.P. Music a viable candidate for album of the year, rap or otherwise. If his 10-plus year career’s roundabout and indirect turns have brought him here, to his current place, something resembling broader relevance and good standing in the hip-hop community, his art seems better for it.
Killer Mike conjures up images of a preacher at the pulpit, his booming voice spewing his apostate’s gospel to his ardent followers below, his trunk-rattling beats backing him up. About halfway through his efficient sub-60-minute set, he stopped to address the crowd and tell a story from his childhood: Even though his family belonged to a large church, his grandmother took him to smaller, local churches because, in her words, “That’s where the spirit is.” The spirit was with Pearl Street’s small crowd, particularly a young man named Charles, who worked as Killer Mike’s unofficial hype man, shouting every word while pressed up against the front of the stage. Later, Killer Mike said that performing and rapping for fans is the closest thing he’s had to a religious experience.
His rap isn’t only peppered with religious imagery, it’s pressed right alongside stories of personal struggles and successes or political dissent. He made his way to “Reagan,” his lyrical screed against the 40th president, repeating the song’s last line “I leave you with four words/I’m glad Reagan dead” to cheers from his followers. He broke into “Butane (Champion’s Anthem),” whose “Yeah yeah yeah yeah” break begs for crowd participation. The flock obliged.
He certainly has played to larger and louder crowds this year—and if his apparent adulation with Pearl Street’s attendees was an act, he deserves an Oscar—but he seemed genuinely happy and humbled by the shouts for his older songs or the crowd’s willingness to throw their hands up on cue. Later in the night, he jumped into “Ric Flair,” a song featuring interludes courtesy of the Nature Boy himself, worked through his verse on Outkast’s “The Whole World,” and ended the night dancing in the crowd and mugging for the camera, the crowd bouncing and singing in unison behind him to “Kryptonite (I’m On It),” the Purple Ribbon All-Stars posse cut. He promised to be back in the spring and said he’d do R.A.P. Music in full, plus another 45 minutes of his classics—only if fans promised to harass him about it on Twitter.