There’s an argument to be made that commercial music today seems to stem from bouts of insecurity and lack of self. One hit wonders and gimmick artists make their names by accidently parodying the commercial landscape; think Stitches glorifying cocaine. It’s not #thuglyfe, it’s funny. But there’s an underlying sadness to this kind of evolving musical world in which every famous rapper or pop artist wants to appeal to their audience by pretending to adhere to a society-centric set of views. It’s why all our leading men and women have most of their music videos taking place in night clubs or in some given situation objectifying the opposite sex. It’s all about attaining relatability and today you don’t want people to relate to you through the reality of the human experience, but rather some fake representation of it that happens beneath a veneer of nonchalance and cool. That’s not to say this sort of agenda is flawed in some way because it isn’t. Plenty of compelling artists have made their names through the machine of glitz and flashing lights. If you believe in this argument though, there reaches a point when as a listener you begin to question the validity of these songs and whether they are at all concerned with the human condition, because life isn’t just “p*ssy, money, weed” and it’s really difficult not to think that these artists (and the corporations behind them) are really just full of crap.
Enter Run The Jewels, a take-no-prisoners approach to hip-hop and the most refreshing release so far this year. Composed of 39-year-olds El-P and Killer Mike (who stems from that lush forest which is the Outkast family tree), Run The Jewels is fully aware of the current state of affairs within commercial music and seem hell-bent on calling everybody out. Their new album, “Run The Jewels 2” is the most purposefully aggressive rap album I’ve listened to in a while. Their first release, “Run The Jewels” was just as much amped on anger as it was on personality, but it had the workings of a mixtape and lacked the vulnerability and insight that the two rappers display on their latest. This second release is definitely an album. It has a wider scope and voice. While the first album seemed intent on just criticizing certain societal incoherencies, this album dares to venture into politics.
These guys don’t preach either. What you hear on their songs is evidenced by near forty years of experience and intellectual insight. On the song “Close Your Eyes (And Count to F#%K)” the duo team up with Rage Against the Machine frontman Zack De La Rocha, a creative collaboration about prisoners rioting and taking over a prison. El-P raps, “Conditions create a villain/the villain is givin’ vision/the vision becomes a vow to seek vengeance on all the vicious/liars and politicians, profiteers of the prisons/the forehead engravers, enslavers of men and women.” These dudes aren’t playing. There’s a cultured and informed voice behind the chaos and on this song it isn’t justifying killing cops, but there’s some interesting stuff to be said about how the prison system treats its inmates. Run The Jewels might be the only rap group to put that into both criticism and compelling entertainment simultaneously. And yeah, in case you were wondering, that forehead engravings bit was a shout-out to Tarantino’s “Inglorious Basterds.”
And that isn’t the only Tarantino reference throughout. On “All Due Respect,” Mike raps “On the orders of Marcellus to the soundtrack of 2Pac/ I’ll beat you to a pulp no fiction/ Tarantino flow new Jules and Vincent.” It’s fitting that two dudes who met through a cartoon network executive who’s a mutual friend and have been featured on Adult Swim are Tarantino fanboys; their work is littered with the same kind of swagger as the filmmaker. Some of their songs evoke late ’80s slasher flicks and on the Song “Oh My Darling Don’t Cry,” they sample Police Academy’s Michael Winslow. It’s enough self-awareness that it’s funny without losing it’s absurdity or enraged passion, especially since the album has such a defined and creative view on life.
It might seem trivial to point out that one of these guys is white and the other is black. It’s not like racial integration is a new thing, but Killer Mike and El-P use their racial identities to their advantages. On “Early” Mike raps about the violence that falls unfairly on African Americans, “It be feelin like the life that I’m livin/ A man I don’t control/ Like every day I’m in a fight for my soul/ Could it be that my medicine’s the evidence/ for pigs to stop and frisk me when they rollin’ round on patrol?/ And ask “why you’re here?”/ I just tell em’ cause it is what it is/ I live here and that’s what it is/ He chimed “you got a dime”/ I said “Man, I’m tryin’ to smoke and chill/ Please don’t lock me up in front of my kids.”
It’s reasonable to assume that life as an African American with little resources is a difficult life. That’s put very well here. It’s also interesting to consider that maybe smoking a little weed to take off the edge of that sort of life really isn’t that big of a deal, and that it certainly doesn’t merit getting arrested in front of your kids. Later in the song El-P raps about being white and conflicted as all this happens around him, “You know that’s the law/ deal done by the shake of claws/ it ain’t a game if this ish don’t pause/ And I find you odd, so convinced in the truth of y’all/ that the true truth’s truly gone.”
Life is hard sometimes and the lines are more blurred than authority figures would sometimes like to admit. Cleverly, to end the song, El-P, who produces all the groups music, sample’s Sun Kil Moon’s “Pray for Newtown,” a song that attacks the gun use in America. On this song (the entire album really), the problems are displayed as they are: a no-bullsh*t review of contemporary life in America. I love what Pitchfork wrote about it, “RTJ2 is El-P’s most accessible and rangy production to date and he’s hit a stride that recalls Sonic Youth in 1987 or Animal Collective in 2004, the point where a celebrated noise terrorist starts to embrace and challenge their audience rather than simply testing their patience.”
Another interesting statement by the duo is the song “Love Again” featuring Gangsta Boo, the former female member of Three Six Mafia. The song is just as much about shock value as it is a parody of the trending hip-hop that centers itself on objectifying women. The song might sound like the regular brand of male sex-monger music that plays on the radio until you realize a girl basically hijacks the track and objectifies guys all the same. Gangsta Boo’s verse is the most inspired one on the track and is vicious and funny, I won’t go on to quote the lyrics on here. Suffice it to say they’re pretty graphic. When she goes on to sing the hook you finally understand that this is Run The Jewels pulling another bit of Tarantino commentary, it’s Django Unchained saying the n-word a million times, except here they’re baiting you with descriptively colorful sex talk. It shows just how empty the world of hip-hop can be at times, because songs like “Love Again” are taken seriously when there’s a real detriment behind them. And it’s not moral detriment, it’s lack of creativity, lack of an artistic statement. All people want to do is just get you to like them, they don’t even know what they want to say, just that they want to say something, and for Run The Jewels that’s the end of the line. You can’t hide from them; just hope you find something worthwhile to say, and maybe find yourself in the process too.
words_juan bisono. pictures_courtesy of windish agency.