Killer Mike's had a helluva year, and Big Boi's had a helluva life. The former's recent emergence as one of the most compelling, if not terrifying, rappers of his generation as the leading half of rap duo of Run the Jewels is a hard-earned come-up, fulfilling a decade of Killer Mike's early promise and creative growth apart from his Dungeon Family roots.
Though he's featured on Stankonia, many rap fans first heard Killer Mike rapping as the choppy, brutish guest on OutKast's 2001 compilation single "The Whole World," which peaked at No. 19 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 2002. "The Whole World" aside, the early '00s were quiet years for Killer Mike, as Big Boi and Andre 3000 meanwhile racked up critical acclaim, platinum plaques, and Grammys on the strength of Stankonia and Speakerboxxx/The Love Below. Not until the late '00s and beyond, years after OutKast all but disintegrated, would Killer Mike build his own catalog of impressive projects, dropping I Pledge Allegiance to the Grind in 2006, Bangx3 in 2011, and then R.A.P. Music, Mike's first project produced by El-P, in 2012. As Mike flourished, the spotlights on OutKast pivoted elsewhere.
So the tables are turned. At this surprising, hard-earned stage of Killer's Mike career, Complex Music staff writer Justin Charity and Do Androids Dance editor khal feel like scrapping it out over the respective legacies of two long-underrated titans of Atlanta rap history. Killer Mike vs. Big Boi. May the best ATLien win.
CHARITY: Recently Pitchfork featured Big Boi's true solo debut, Sir Lucious Left Foot (2010), as entry No. 79 in its ranking of the 100 best albums of the present decade—a minor coup for Big Boi’s legacy apart from Andre 3000. Never mind that Sir Lucious is the stalest of Big Boi's solo trilogy to date. (And disregard the aforementioned Pitchfork list’s snub of Rick Ross' entire career, as if I’d ever buy the ludicrous insinuation that Finally Rich is more compelling and/or more important than fucking Teflon Don.)
Coincidentally this past summer, Big Boi nearly sent his groovy goons to snuff Marc Lamont Hill, a constipated rap academic if there ever was one, for his 180-character shade of Big Boi's catalog and role in OutKast. This disrespect, despite Big Boi's having given us superior verses on “Aquemini” and “Synthesizer,” “Ms. Jackson” and “So Fresh,” and certainly on “Red Velvet.” I rebuke this notion that Big Boi is Atlanta’s Phife Dawg, who never gave a Speakerboxx, an “In the A,” not one serviceable hit apart from his work with Q-Tip and the Tribe.
Big Boi is the slump gawd. My brother, where is tha love?
khal: Well, Big Boi can’t be Tribe’s Phife Dawg, because Phife never birthed anyone who went on to win quite like Killer Mike did.
I mean I don’t really vibe with anyone’s best album rankings (aside from the people I share workspace with), but outside of all of that, Big Boi might be the reason Big Boi is looked upon in that light. It was his decision—be it loyalty or whatever you want to call it—that kept Big Boi waiting for Andre 3000 to drop new material. Big Boi didn’t drop Sir Lucious until four years after that Idlewild release. Was that Andre’s fault? Not sure about that. Hell, Big Boi found time to make stellar films like Who’s Your Caddy?
On the flipside, Killer Mike was in a similar situation, where he got on with the ‘Kast but started to languish due to the stop-start nature of his Ghetto Extraordinary project, which had a lot to do with not seeing eye to eye with Sir Lucious and Sony. What did he end up doing? He packed up his shit and dipped to Grand Hustle. After doing a two-year bid in the house that T.I. built, where’s Killer Mike now? Murdering everything moving.
While Mike's I Pledge Allegiance to the Grind releases are where a lot of people see his star shining, it was 2012’s R.A.P. Music, where he linked up with El-P (prior to forming the mighty Run the Jewels) and really showed the world that, yes, this combination of ghetto intellect and bombastic sounds could be the best duo we never knew could always exist. It took a long time coming for Mike to truly hit his stride, but he’s not gotten off that muhfucka since he got on.
CHARITY: No one’s sweating Run the Jewels, though I’ll insist that, universal acclaim for Run the Jewels 2 notwithstanding, R.A.P. Music is El-P and Killer Mike’s best joint project to date. Arguably. In any case, Killer Mike’s collaborative zenith is Run the Jewels, whereas Big Boi’s crowning achievement is his being one half of one of the greatest black bands in U.S. music history.
Big Boi’s long been a practitioner of weirdo funk radicalism, and he’s more eclectic and risky than folks ever seem to give him credit. “War” is Run the Jewels 2 with an 11-year head start. Speakerboxxx is a crunk rework of Prince’s Sign o’ the Times, pretty much. Big Boi and Killer Mike are both forever on that old-soul steez, but the former’s iteration of such frequently defies genre and conventional sense.
As for Mike’s pre-RTJ projects, I’d argue that I Pledge Allegiance to the Grind, Underground Atlanta, and Bangx3, for all their songwriting merit, are trap conservatism that never suggested the revolutionary talent or unique stride he’s only hit since 2011 (PL3DGE), 2012 (R.A.P. Music). Clap for him, but concede that his legacy is still a few steps behind Big Boi’s, both on the solo tip and in sum.
khal: I’ll give you Big Boi getting out further ahead and hitting goals that Mike has yet to achieve, but a lot of that is based on the lanes they’re rolling in. While I would never want to test Big Boi’s G, he’s also parlayed his sound into tracks that have way more of a pop appeal than Mike would ever want to aspire for—which isn’t a bad thing. But you bring up a good point regarding the stride Mike is making in comparison to Big Boi’s ascension then obvious plateau.
Big Boi came out the box swinging. ’Kast was the first hip-hop group on LaFace, and Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik was a landmark moment for the Atlanta hip-hop scene, where cats could still talk that player shit while serving you the New South on a platter. It was also a part of that “golden age” of hip-hop, and spawned a great series of albums that solidified their place in the Southern rap lexicon, and in hip-hop general. Thing is, the shit stopped.
Big Boi and Andre started low and continued to rise before a sharp fall; and during that fall, Killer Mike seemed to be gathering his wits about him and getting ready for today, the era where he’s doing what the fuck he wants to do. Did he rise from the ashes of a fallen OutKast? No, but he sho ’nuff let it be known that he was going to kick that fucking door down while rising from the basement.
What’s sad is I remember Big Boi on MTV's Cribs, talking about having a studio in his home. I’d reflect on that when asking myself, “Why the fuck is Big Boi waiting to release material?” Maybe it’s the fact that he got to a point where he couldn’t put out something that people might not feel held up to the previous ’Kast material. He definitely had gems in him; Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors had some heat to it. But it feels like he still hit some kind of creative snag. He went from dropping OutKast albums every two years to three years between Speakerboxxx/The Love Below and Idlewild, to another four before Sir Lucious. Maybe it’s the dependency on being in a duo that held Big Boi from stepping out officially on his own. We’ll never really know, but what we do realize is that the hits haven’t added up, and while Big Boi does have the respect he’s earned, many just wish for a new OutKast album.
Flip the record over and you have Killer Mike spitting like the hand of Black Jesus was writing his rhymes (well, some of them). Sure, it took him a bit to hit that stride; PL3DGE hit a good eight years after Mike burst onto the scene. But since that re-emergence in 2011? Mike’s made sure that he’s hit us with SOMETHING every year, and based on what he says will be dropping, we’re in for a good dose of realness from Killer Mike before Big Boi might end up releasing another album, be it his own or an OutKast joint.
Mind you, a lot of this is due to the change in the recording industry climate, and Big Boi might be accustomed to major label schedules and plotting out rollouts and videos and such, while Mike (being the real nigga he is) has no problem holing up in a studio for a month or two, murdering tracks, then just hitting the road. The critical acclaim has done him good, and again, he’s on a streak of releasing material that’s getting better and better as he goes on.
CHARITY: I, too, remember watching that Cribs episode back when it first aired. My takeaway at the time way, “Damn, it sounds like he and Andre don’t kick it together as often as a fan would hope. Little did I know, little did we know.
Big Boi’s been a slow burn, I’ll concede that much. What you’re underscoring, basically, is that the careers of Killer Mike and Big Boi are, in a sense, mirror inversions of one another. “The Whole World” hits in 2001, but then Mike takes nearly a decade to build a remarkable career on top of that spark. In contrast, Big Boi launches on that good foot in 1994 and then runs an unfuckwittable ten-year, five-album streak in which he and Andre 3000 become the greatest rap group of all time. Big Boi’s post-Speakerboxxx catalog is the victory lap, fam’ron. “Royal Flush” is the valedictory press conference. “In the A” is the retirement party. You already lost.
The argument you’re stepping to me with advantages the fact that Killer Mike is hot right now, at this particular moment; which, hey, sure, and I wish him nothing but luck and indefatigable dopeness. Like my hardback copy of Catch-22 borrowed from the library of Varina High School, Mike’s a decade overdue. But you’re never gonna wrest Outkast’s overall impact from the discussion of Big Boi’s legacy and stature within hip hop. Especially considering that Killer Mike, if not for his collaborations with Big Boi and El-P, is but a footnote of ‘00s Atlanta trap history. That said, it’s a goddamn shame that Mike, Antwan, and Andre have gone through so many stages of disagreement and commercial incompatibility ever since the Speakerboxxx era.
khal: I would never try and downplay what Outkast has done for the A, or hip-hop in general, but longevity in today’s music industry is a marathon, not a sprint. For the ten-year, five-album streak Big Boi had then, Killer Mike’s ascended now, to the point where many sad reports from Outkast’s summer festival extravaganza let it be known that a lot of idiot music fans knew fuck all about Outkast’s material. They can rock crowds, but how many of those kids are becoming fans and actually buying material? And what have they done (or planned to do) since headlining damn near every festival in North America?
Don’t worry, I’ll wait.
Meanwhile, Killer Mike might end up being a smaller footnote in the History of Atlanta Rap, but he was able to keep his head above water, stay relevant, and earn a buck as, again, a real ass nigga. No need for major labels or cares about how many units sold. He stood his ground, didn’t bend over and accept the cards that were dealt, and now he’s being rewarded with critical acclaim and a string of releases that are undeniably dope, and bright spots in a pretty shitty year for hip-hop, if I’m being honest.
In the end, Big Boi and Killer Mike are two of the illest to ever do it from Atlanta. It’s almost blasphemous to play one against the other. I think we can both agree that in a perfect world, there’d be a Purple Ribbon imprint that’d feature deep catalogs from Antwan, Andre, Mike, and whatever amazingness Sleepy Brown has been working on, tucked in the backseat of some candy-colored Cadillac, right next to a Lil’ Will CD and a fucking poster.