ATLANTA — When Killer Mike heard Friday that he was nominated for three Grammys, the rapper thought back to a photo of his grandmother. In the photograph, he’s holding the 2003 Grammy Award he won for Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group when he was featured on OutKast’s 2001 single, “The Whole World.” It was his scene-stealing second verse that temporarily snatched the spotlight from Andre 3000 and Big Boi, serving as a breakthrough for the upstart from Adamsville.
He remembers his grandmother being proud, flexing a big smile captured by legendary music photographer Jonathan Mannion. Two decades later, “Michael,” his first solo album in 11 years, is up for Best Rap Album. Killer Mike faces competition from locals including 21 Savage (“Her Loss”) and Metro Boomin (“Heroes and Villains”). The rest of the field? He faces a tough test in Travis Scott (“Utopia”) and Nas (“King’s Disease III”).
This year, the rapper and activist is featured in the AJC Films documentary, “The South Got Something to Say,” sharing his insights on Atlanta’s hip-hop legacy. Killer Mike sees “Michael” as a strong chapter in his and hip-hop’s story.
“I honestly feel like I made the rap album of the year,” he told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “I think that it’s a beautiful sense of irony and serendipity that’s made in the 50th year of hip-hop.”
In addition to Best Rap Album, the song “Scientists and Engineers,” featuring Andre 3000 and Future, is nominated for Best Rap Song and Best Rap Performance.
Killer Mike said he’s focused on winning the bigger prize. “I want the award,” he said. “I want that for my family still.”
After the nominations for the 66th Grammy Awards were announced, Killer Mike spoke to the AJC about being snubbed by the recording academy in the past, his odds of winning, and the 50th anniversary of hip-hop.
Congratulations! I’m told AJC filmmaker Ryan Horne broke the news to you. Where were you when you found out?
I was sitting at Rosie’s on Sylvan Road. I’m slightly stoned having a great breakfast with my wife, Shay, and with my cinematographer Mike Allen.
What is your initial reaction?
I feel like I’ve done Atlanta proud. I’ve done hip-hop proud, I’ve done the Dungeon family proud, and I did the West Side of Atlanta proud.
I’m proud as a Southerner to present a sound that’s cornerstoned by groups like UGK, 8Ball and MJG, OutKast. I’m happy to be pushing the line like Luther Campbell did. I’m happy to be about my business, like Baby, like Master P. I’m happy that I have integrity in my opinion like Charlie Braxton. I’m proud to be a Southern hip-hop maker today. I’m proud that my name is going to be spoken next to people who I revere, like Scarface. This is what I do it for. And this is just halfway up the mountain. We still got a peak to climb.
You’ve never been nominated as a solo artist before, and your group, Run the Jewels, has never been nominated for your albums. “Michael” now has three nominations. Does it feel bittersweet?
I’m too busy looking forward to look backward, you know what I mean? I have a Grammy so I could rest on the laurels that I have one. I’m no more going to rest on the laurels that I have one than I would say, “Well man, we didn’t get the opportunity a time or two ago.” What I’m happy about is that I have the rap album of the year this year — without question, without fail.
This album is as important as August Wilson’s “Fences.” This album is as important as Zora Neal Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God.” These writings are as important as anything that Tony Morrison has put down on our people’s behalf, anything Langston Hughes put down on our people’s behalf. So I can’t just let it be regulated to, “Oh man, it was a nice jam, a little record.” This is an artistic statement, a generational statement. This is something for us to be proud of and I’m proud to be the conduit that delivered this energy.
You’ve got some other Atlantans in the Best Rap Album category with you, including 21 Savage and Metro Boomin.
Man, love those guys. Love my fellow Atlantans.
Did you have a favorite album of the year that wasn’t yours?
I’ve listened. I absorbed myself with “Michael” this year. It’s all I’ve been about. I’ve listened to every album this year. But with that said, this album keeps bringing me back to it because it’s, again, I was just a conduit for some energy that flows through. I’m listening to this record like I didn’t even write it. It’s truly a book. I look at this book like Mario Puzo must’ve watched the “Godfather.”
As much as I’ve liked the works of my peers, my contemporaries, my fellow artists, this is the piece of art that to me stops people dead in their tracks, that makes the worker class proud. It’s a snapshot of Black life in America at this time, and worker class life in America at this time. And it’s not just intelligentsia, not just things that make your brain boogie or your butt jiggle. It’s something to truly pierce your heart.
You’re also up for Best Rap performance and Best Rap Song for “Scientists and Engineers” with Andre 3000 and Future. How do you feel about the voters taking note of that song twice?
I want to bring three Grammys home, but if I have to choose one, Best Rap Album is the one that I absolutely deserve. I want to have an arm full of trophies like Lauryn Hill (winning for) “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.” To me this album is a “Miseducation” for the working class, Southerner, for Black men and the women that love them. This is a male version of that album.
In the 50th year of hip-hop, this is the album that best represents this beautiful cultural genre that poor kids here in America figured out, creating art out of nothing.
What if you don’t win for Best Rap Album? Does that change anything for you?
I’ve not won for most of my career in terms of these things. And what I’ve done is continually made better and better art. At the end of the day, I’m an artist. I have a compulsion to make art. That’s what I will always be.