You might not have heard of MIKE. You’ve definitely heard his work though. He’s a member of New York hip-hop collective sLUms, which features a range of writers and producers including Jazz Jodi, Booliemane, and Sixpress, all of whom are still in their early twenties. He’s also quietly amassed a significant amount of buzz only eighteen months after the release of his breakthrough mixtape May God Bless Your Hustle, a tape as alien and obfuscating as it was really fun to listen to.
In the year following he released two EPs and two full lengths. Each of these releases built, in one way or another, on its predecessors, establishing he and his collaborators’ shared sound with more and more assuredness each time. With War In My Pen, however, it’s clear that he saved the best for last.
Across a tight thirteen tracks MIKE delivers a beautiful mix of molasses-covered slow jams (see October Baby) sun-warped jazz rap (see Rottweiler) and borderline trap bangers (see Grabba) without ever repeating ideas or losing forward momentum. This momentum is maintained in large part by the fascinating songwriting at the album’s core. To be fair, you’d be hard-pressed to find a MIKE project that wasn’t sharply written from front to back, but with each passing release the emphasis on language has only become more clear and more exaggerated (skeptics need look no further than the title of the project).
Amazing lines pop up all over this tape, an often in unexpected places, jumping between meditations on drugs, race, family, oppression, and self-esteem with remarkable speed and grace, often combining several at once. The first four lines of Rottweiler alone pack more emotion, humor, and personality than some rappers manage on an entire project, “Heart heavy, tryna pick it up / If I’m ever out the game, who gon’ pick it up? / You can tell just by my name that I don’t give a- / This shit is really fucked.”
Despite this lyrical focus however, the production remains varied and complex throughout. This is also the first time that MIKE has ever self-produced for the duration of a project (which he does under the alias dj blackpower). This contributes in a big way to the overall sense of cohesion and style found on the record – though the dense and varied sounds of his sLUms group-mates are sometimes missed.
This isn’t the only first with a big footprint on the album either, as War is the first project of MIKE’s to be dropped since the release of Earl Sweatshirt’s long awaited, critically acclaimed Some Rap Songs. There’s an obvious temptation, given the major contributions MIKE and the rest of sLUms made to that record, to label the collective now and forever as Earl-Adjacent, as many have already done with great enthusiasm. This isn’t an entirely flawed approach either, as in some ways War works as a retrospective look into that influence, a peek behind the iron curtain standing between one of rap’s most straightforwardly private figures and his mobs of die-hard fans.
To occupy this perspective, however, is to miss the true significance of a work like this entirely. MIKE’s now heavily publicized connection to Earl should do more for the average music listener’s appreciation of his music than simply attach a larger, more well-known name to his list of frequent collaborators. Their partnership, rather, serves as a useful tool for examining the very heart of MIKE’s music.
Success in independent music has always been conflated with a sort of freedom. Once-underground sounds become the new pop, voices are heard, the world might even be changed in some way. What’s more important, however, is that said sound or artist has escaped obscurity and become famous, recognizable, mainstream. In this sense fame serves to legitimize artistic expression, and the reward for an unyielding voice is an eventual pat on the pack and a lot of money.
Over the past decade or so there has been a massive revival in the independent rap scene. From the early days of Odd Future, Raider Klxn, and A$AP Mob to more modern Soundcloud rap to the persistent Bandcamp “Art-Rap” scene new sounds and ideas have significantly changed the face of the genre as a whole. It might even be hard to imagine at this point that most major trap stars started as genuine independent musicians, genuinely doing everything themselves, given how genuinely massive their fan-bases are now. In some ways this renaissance of underground music has made fame more legitimizing than ever. Clout was just about the biggest buzzword the music industry could muster for a solid two years.
In the wake of that cultural shift however, another sort of rap ideology has quietly grown into itself. MIKE and the rest of sLUms have been working harder than nearly anyone else in the industry for the past three or four years, releasing a truly remarkable amount of music in such a short time frame, grinding relentlessly. When the acclaim started to roll in, however, it didn’t seem to change them. That’s because the priority has never been to reach superstar status, or to become larger than life. These guys are rapping to put food on the table and take care of their families while being able to express themselves openly in a society that has gone to extraordinary lengths to devalue nonwhite voices and block out dissenting opinion. The top comment on the ‘War In My Pen’ Bandcamp page currently reads “this is real life music.” The priority has always been to make real life music and live a real life while doing it.
Collaboration with someone like Earl, then, doesn’t suggest a desire to blow up, or to get rich. It actually shows the opposite: that even big name artists long for a musical landscape wherein compromise has never been the norm, and the sanctity of expression has never been second to the ways and means of industry that made them famous. ‘War In My Pen’ is a confident assertion that such a landscape can and will exist for those ready to occupy it. It just so happens that MIKE has been there for years.