As I bemoaned earlier this week, rock and indie are in a bad way. But on the flip side of this, hip hop and R&B are flourishing in a new wave of creativity. I wrote a long form theory for this a while back, but since then, a strong contender for my album of the year has come out that I wish I could have mentioned at the time.
Run the Jewels is a collaboration between a long time guest on Outkast albums, Atlanta’s Killer Mike and the brilliantly dark producer, rapper, and sci-fi enthusiast, Brooklyn’s El-P. They have between them been responsible for some of the best cuts of the last decade, but solo, neither had truly matched the potential they had shown when collaborating (not to say that they aren’t good!). The collaborations genesis was born on Killer Mike’s 2012 R.A.P. Music album, entirely produced by El-P, but Run The Jewels is a more equal collaboration, and they have both found their perfect partner here.
And a confession here, before I move on. When the first Run the Jewels came out, I was enjoying the equally dissonant, but more puerile thrills of Death Grips, and the frenetic fun of Danny Brown, and I didn’t give it the chance I should. I did enjoy it enough that I grabbed Run the Jewels 2 on it’s release last month, and both albums have been slowly creeping up on me since.
But this week, on the night of the verdict in Ferguson, Run the Jewels were playing in nearby San Diego. A clip of Killer Mike speaking before the show got online, and honestly, it’s one of the most honest, powerful pieces of oratory I have heard in recent years.
Sometimes, a record just needs the right time, and these are albums for a time when anger, and indignation fill you with frustration at the world. The hard, industrial beats, in tandem with some of the rawest, most vicious rhymes I’ve heard for a very long time, make it the right album for this time.
As with me, it may not grab you straight away, it is very aggressive, and almost dares you not to like it, but when it does, it holds on you like nothing I’ve heard in the last ten years. As most teenagers of the 1990’s will probably agree, Rage Against the Machine were both great to listen to, but also cathartic at the same time. To paraphrase Kurt Vonnegut, it’s the knowledge that somebody is thinking what you’re thinking, and enough people are agreeing with it that it gets bought, and so you know you’re not alone in your feelings and thoughts. When Run the Jewels are angry and political, they are more than deserving RATM’s crown of raw politicised anger, which explains a fun cameo by Zach De La Rocha on the sublime Close Your Eyes (and Count to Fuck).
But even the above comparison doesn’t do them justice. I am not a great rap music historian, but these might just be the greatest screams of rage and antagonism since the two hander of Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and Fear of a Black Planet. The musical dissonance combined with over the top, violent expression make them worthy successors, and like those, these are albums that perhaps only sound right because they’re released in a time where again, an elite is becoming rich, as the poor and marginalised become ever more powerless and impoverished. When Dead Prez dropped Let’s Get Free, or even in the wake of 9/11 when a great many political records were released, the general sense of prosperity meant that even while you agreed with the sentiment, it couldn’t especially feel vital, and Important. But right now, this works. The world is in the wrong place right now, which is the right place for a record like this.
And I have got this far without really raving about particular songs. Run the Jewels itself is a fantastic welcome to their world, a sucker punch of a track that immediately sets the tone for their sound. Banana Clipper shows what you should do when you get a big name to drop a guest verse- force them to do their best work over a beat you wouldn’t associate with them normally- and they really seem to have a habit of getting the best out of all their guests. Blockbuster Night, part 1 does more in two and a half minutes than other artists manage in five, and Close Your Eyes, mentioned earlier, takes the concept of A Milli by Lil’ Wayne, blackens it’s eye, and uses it to talk how sick the world is, rather than how ill they themselves are.
So. Go out. Get it. It’s brilliant. Even if you hate it, you’ll be doing good. Killer Mike backs up his feelings with action, and is working on opening a chain of 150 barber stores, called SWAG (Shave, Wash And Groom) in poor neighbourhoods, to provide skills training and employment to people there. And they’re also using Kickstarter to fund Meow the Jewels, a remix of the entire album using only cat sounds, with proceeds going to charity. So they’re not as po faced as I have made them sound above!