Review: ‘Trigger Warning’ with Killer Mike Has a Big Heart Underneath its Pugilistic Attitude

Trigger Warning - Killer Mike
In “Trigger Warning,” Killer Mike takes thoughtful criticism of American society and transmutes it into an entertaining caper that happens to offer some great action items along the way.

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Killer Mike is enormous. His personality is bombastic, his music nuclear, his lifestyle king-sized. His actual size, which he jokes about with the best of humor, pales in comparison. It nonetheless remains that Michael Render has an enormous presence, and one that’s perfectly suited to being the host of a confrontational mock reality show, Trigger Warning with Killer Mike. After watching the show, I can also say with complete certainty that Killer Mike has a big heart, though he may hide it behind a pugilistic demeanor.

Trigger Warning with Killer Mike

Trigger Warning with Killer Mike

Now, before you roll your eyes and walk away, the title is a bit of bait. Trigger Warning isn’t a show relitigating tiresome handwringing about American campuses, or the boisterous, confidently held rage of cocaine selling snitches. In Trigger Warning, Killer Mike takes thoughtful criticism of American society and transmutes it into an entertaining caper that happens to offer some great action items along the way.

The show’s style is somewhere between Nathan For You, Cold War era educational parody, and the writings of Malcolm X, but Mike’s narration forges the show’s combative personality. Every line of dialogue seems written to sow hostility. “My own kitchen was a black food desert, and I was hungry as fuck,” as he says in the first episode, giving a bite even to mundanities like hunger pangs.

But like I said, Killer Mike has a heart. His conversations with people on the ground run the gamut from philosophical to deeply patient to boisterous and confrontational. Mike’s patience is truly angelic, as he maintains his composure even when an older woman confronts him with the depth charge of, “I still think most of the shootings and robberies are done by blacks.”

Trigger Warning with Killer Mike

Trigger Warning with Killer Mike

Aside from the comedy, this is Trigger Warning’s best feature. Mike generally isn’t peddling civility discourse or debate pageantry, but tenets of actual activism where he gets on the ground and compels people to positively affect their community. From an overall standpoint, the first episode was the most impressive, and also the most cohesive.

I’d like to take the deepest dive into episode one, because it’s the most representative of the show’s ethos.

Episode one is called “Living Black” and starts out with a simple enough premise: Mike will live black for three days. That means only buying black owned goods, all the way up the supply chain. But that premise comes with some controversial implications, namely, that desegregation had come with a negative consequences for black economies. Already, mission accomplished for the show. You got me. I’m triggered.

This isn’t an argument for segregation, of course – Mike makes that abundantly clear, which is important. His point is that it’s very, very difficult to keep money inside of black communities because of prevailing economic structures, as well as historical and continuing discrimination. As he says in the show:

“When I was young…I thought that desegregation was the end of the freedom fight, and black people had finally achieved what we wanted – to be able to sit at a counter and drink water next to white people. My grandpa told me that before desegregation…If you went to a dentist, he was black…if you wanted food, you’d go to a black store. So from top to bottom from the dollar perspective, stayed black.”

And, as Render says in a deft interview on The View, his “my job is not to change [an elderly woman’s] opinion, it is to present an alternative to the perception of reality we all agree to.”

So, with three days on the clock, Mike sets off on a journey to keep his money black.

The very first minute, Mike realizes how hard this is. It’s a sentiment epitomized in his producer’s comment, “This is the whitest fridge I’ve ever seen.” To live black, Mike has to abstain from or replace his car, his smart phone, Uber, TV (except BET), music, detergent, toothpaste, store bought foods and, to Mike’s utter torment, Northern California white-grown weed.

All of this leads to some hilarious interactions, especially when El-P, the other half of Run the Jewels, shows up. Almost immediately, El-P confesses he slept on a king-size bed and had lobster from room service the same night Mike couldn’t open a can of beans and slept on a park bench because there were no black owned hotels. On weed, Mike tells El-P, “You guys gentrified marijuana.” El-P, frustrated, “Yeah, we’re an unstoppable force.”

Episode one ends with a call to action to viewers: make every day a Black Friday.

“I need you all to make a pledge to turn all Fridays into Black Fridays, where everyone makes a conscious effort to buy black and support a black owned business at least once a week. I know there’s already a black friday out there.”

“But that one’s bullshit.”

The episodes follow the tried and true reality show parody formula with a uniquely Killer Mike twist. They take an absurd premise (say, developing a religion based around Mike’s sleepy looking friend), play with it, and somehow spit out insight that blindsides you. Another episode sees Mike making education pornography, while another sees him uniting the Crips and Bloods to make Crip-a-Cola and BloodPop (not him). It amazes how Mike usually finds some angle inside this goofiness to turn these chaotic stunts into useful commentary on justice issues.

There are times however where he does flirt with more tried talking points. They didn’t feel in bad faith, but given how strong the rest of the show is it felt a bit lazy. Episode six offends worst in this regard. It starts with a montage of events from past years, visually juxtaposing the Charlottesville Nazi march with the comparatively docile Women’s March. I thought this was a dishonest equivalency, especially because the episode’s follow up is weak. It’s the one episode that doesn’t spit genuine wisdom at the end.

Episode two had some ‘ooh, edgy’ moments that felt like soft-takes. The first scene has Mike walk into a kid’s classroom and take some easy shots at kids’ dream jobs and traditional education. Later, he lambastes a couple of black men for wanting to make it in the music industry which, you know that felt rich given Mike’s career.

These are minor flaws though. Trigger Warning with Killer Mike runs six episodes and is well worth the time investment. Mike’s activist mind and pugilistic attitude turns a run-of-the-mill reality parody formula, alchemy like, into a unique and hilarious show. I’m still not sure about some of the choices – mostly in the edginess category – but Mike, El-P, and a host of community organizers have a lot to offer the viewer that’s willing to sit down and listen.

:: Watch Trigger Warning with Killer Mike ::

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Danny Vagnoni is a writer specializing in music & culture writing, podcasting, and editorial work. Danny is currently working with Grammy winner Denny Somach (Ah Via Musicom, Eric Johnson) on an upcoming classic rock podcast and multimedia endeavour. He is based in Philadelphia, PA, and loves the city's resurgent culture. [Aside from all that, Danny has approximately five million instruments, two of which he can play competently, brews beer for kicks, co-hosts a podcast, and has a ceaseless drive to create.]