KILLER MIKE is a knife to the throat of conventional wisdom. As he barks on "So Glorious" from last year's marvelous Pl3dge: "I'm a book reader/I'm a gang leader." The product of a wild upbringing, no one is better suited to meld the oft-opposing forces of community politics and hard-nosed, hustling rap.

"My dad was a black cop," says Killer Mike, born Michael Render. "My mom was a florist. Then she got into selling a little coke on the side. She got hooked up with a dealer, a trafficker, and eventually entered the adventurous world of trafficking." But as much as these two disparate lives can be heard in his music, a duo from Render's hometown of Atlanta wields the most significant influence.

"I've learned everything from OutKast," Render says. "Everything."

The groundbreaking duo featured Render on "Snappin' and Trappin'," from 2000's canonical Stankonia. It was the second time he appeared on a record. Like Big Boi, Render raps about money, drugs, and strippers every bit as potently as he does about social justice, race, and self-empowerment. (Aesthetically, Killer Mike spits with the blunt force of Ice Cube.) Avoiding the dogma of strictly political emcees, Render still knows a good time. He can drop a banger, but unlike Jay-Z and Kanye, there is no disconnect—no talk of rich-people problems. While Render is pounding and poignant, he steadfastly refuses to play product pitchman.

Killer Mike's latest, R.A.P. Music, is a collaboration with El-P. A mutual friend who saw they had similar tastes introduced the two. "I jumped at the opportunity," says Render. Quickly, the duo churned out "Big Beast," a powerfully aggressive, dark, driven, dirty, and dexterous blast. Render felt they were onto something special and persuaded El-P to come aboard for a whole record. It is the first of Render's 10 albums and mixtapes in which he worked with a single producer.

The two hunkered down in El-P's Brooklyn home last August. "We examined thoughts and emotions," says Render. "Not to be overly deep about it, but it really did give us an opportunity to make a record that was more like 16-year-old young kids just making a record out of passion than it was two seasoned musicians having this unique opportunity. We looked at it like kids."

That feeling spilled over to Killer Mike's career. "It feels like a beginning," he says, reflecting on 12 years of rapping. "It's like, you finally made it over that mountain—and then you're looking at a new mountain to climb."