Album Review: MIKE – Beware of the Monkey

[10k; 2022]

Ever since his shoutout from Earl Sweatshirt on “The Mint”, New York rapper MIKE has been orbiting that same space of experimental hip-hop that Sweatshirt acts as a pillar for. This continues on his eighth project Beware of the Monkey, though the methods and lessons learned from last year’s Disco! have tagged along for another intriguing engagement with MIKE’s personality. 

Most of MIKE’s catalog has dropped on the summer solstice, June 21st, a significance we’re not truly aware of yet exists, but for the second time he’s delivering a new project on the winter solstice; December 21st. The significance is still a mystery, and maybe one day we’ll get an idea, but for now the wicked consistency of his output is unparalleled in underground hip-hop. Not bad for a guy under 25 years old. 

On opener “nuthin I can do is wrng” he welcomes us to his latest project, like we’re sitting front row in some dank basement venue as he rolls out with “It’s Big. Fucking. Mike.” His nonchalant delivery is now a trademark, and while he may sound bored, he’s actually just really comfortable. 

The depth of MIKE’s material is like that of an elder statesman, he raps about pain and perseverance like he’s lived a hundred lifetimes already. While Kanye West gained attention for his impeccable knack for mining that 70s soul sound perfectly, MIKE approaches it similarly, only instead he culls inspiration from AM-radio graveyards. That makes his output eerier than anything Ye’s done, and while there are more parallels to these two – both have written tributes to their late-mothers – MIKE’s path takes him further into the rabbit hole of his own domain and away from right wing lunacy. A year and a half after his most accessible record to date, 2021’s Disco!, Beware of the Monkey continues down that same spiral, sometimes even veering into stranger territory, even for MIKE. 

The hazy “Light (if u can’t see)” features cinematic backdrops, it’s that 1970s television score, when the music was pivotal to character development. Here MIKE uses these samples and instrumentals with finesse, and even dabbles in the glow of video game midi soundtracks on “No Curse Lifted (rivers of love)”. 

He hasn’t lost any of that accessibility from Disco! though and manages some version of a chorus on “As 4 Me,” where his only reutilized line comes from “Thank god livin / I didn’t go to prison for brudda and my sis / make the ugliest decisions.” He even stakes a claim as the best rapper in the world, something it’s hard to disagree with lately. 

“Stop Worry!” might take the cake for MIKE’s poppiest moment yet. With that same SEGA Genesis feel as “No Curse Lifted” he tops it all off with a perfectly condensed Sister Nancy feature, adding the Jamaican DJ’s reggae rhythms to an already vigorous track. It’s also home to some of MIKE’s best lyrics on Monkey; “Since we huddled ‘round the grave, fry in the sun, then we freeze / Grab a cup and let my face down, accompanied with trees.”  Nancy is the perfect foil to the rapper’s typical dread, offering up “Rise up” rebuttals to his melancholy, a nice change of pace and something we’ve seen more and more of from MIKE. At such a young age he’s experienced more than most rappers have in their entire life, so his cynical outlook shouldn’t surprise, though he’s on another plane on game-changers like “Stop Worry!”

Behind the panel again is MIKE as his DJ BLackpower persona, still weeding through old vinyl collections and broken tapes to find that perfect marriage of lo-fi and modern hip-hop. He uses Latin guitars on “Tapestry” to inject some romantic vibes, then glitches through piano keys on “Swoosh 23” proving he’ll never rest, so you shouldn’t either. His strategy to bounce between the nostalgic and the modern is never boring or predictable. 

The title Beware of the Monkey may come across as a warning, but it’s a lively adventure destined to pull more in than repel. Here’s a man who loves the antique sounds of yesteryear, finding use for them even in the 2020s. He yo-yos back and forth between the unnerving and the calm, which elevates his work even if it also makes him a bit of an outcast in the scene.