It’s only June and the world is on fire. COVID is still killing, still being ignored as the gloriously idiotic masses gladly go out infesting the world for things like bike rides, grilling, concerts, and and going out to eat, all in the name of “it’ll be fine if i do it.” Still, Cops continue killing black people at an alarming rate, uninterested in police work that makes them accountable for their actions. Atlanta, where Killer Mike is from, has cops literally refusing to work because one of their own was punished for killing yet another black man. And, just in case you’ve forgotten, our president is still who you think it is.
I mention all this because when I mapped this year out, the topic of the month was supposed to be Beyonce. Obviously, there’s plenty to talk about in regards to her rise to domination, but during these times I thought it more pertinent to go all in on the best rap group of the last decade. A group known for unflinching critiques on the constructs of society that enabled them to dissect the staggering amount of fucked up shit currently happening. In other words, what we don't need right now is another puff piece about a great singer and dancer with a huge team creating the music, art direction, lyrics, stage shows and everything else.
Around 2013, most of the hip hop community was still hoping that Watch the Throne, the collab between Jay-Z and Kanye, would continue with another album of arena hip hop mastery, but that didn’t happen. Instead, on the heels of collaborating on El-P’s third solo record “Cancer for Cure,” a tight bond began to form. That bond, now known as Run the Jewels, casually dropped an album full of underground beats and fire lyrical content. Many fans had known their individual members beforehand, but the chemistry of Jamie and Mikey was undeniable. Songs like “Sea Legs” demonstrate word play that’s playful but harmful in its resentment for the way the world works. Analogies are a big part of hip hop and rap culture, bending and twisting around their core message. From the opening album the band has a political tinge to it. They were always positioned to be an important band, we just didn’t know it at first.
The success of the first album, not to mention the renewed attention to consciously minded hip hop, made the success of RTJ2 even more of a sign that things were changing. The duo spit turbulence in the name of societal structures meant to hold us all down. Take a song like the ZDLR featuring “Close Your Eyes (and Count to Fuck),’ with its opening flair of the unmistakable voice. Hitting unexpectedly after two energetically violent songs, it's the cake on top of a wildly successful sophomore album that builds and improves on everything that came before.
During the song we’re treated to this verse: “When you niggas gon' unite and kill the police, mothafuckas? Or take over a jail, give those COs hell. The burnin' of the sulfur, God damn I love the smell. Blankets and pillow torchin', where the fuck the warden? And when you find him, we don't kill him, we just waterboard him. We killin' 'em for freedom cause they tortured us for boredom.
And even if some good ones die, fuck it, the Lord'll sort 'em.” Now, to the uninformed masses, whether they’re purposely ignorant or just generally stupid (this is America after all), these lyrics might make you worried, wary and insecure for your safety. You wouldn’t be the first person to believe that “violent” rappers might come after our fragile white way of life, but you’d still be just as wrong as the others. I mention that lyric so aggressively because while I, a white person who’s never spent significant time in jail, hear that verse and am rejuvenated by the thoughts of corruption being killed by the folks done wrong by the same system, it's taken me ample time, energy and thought to understand that for the black community who’s been beaten down and shit on for hundreds of years, this verse isn’t simply about vengeance.
It speaks to the routine nature of cops working against Black Americans and many other non-white folks in a way that vastly enables whole communities to never reach their true potential. Through this systematic dismantling of chances for Black Americans to thrive, what we’ve told these sectors of the country and the world is that we don't give a shit, and that we got ours. In other words, as de la Rocha puts it so elegantly, “The only thing that close quicker than our caskets be the factories.” The line itself exhibits the type of logical worry that many many feel every day. It speaks to the knowledge of awareness that makes you understand why black communities suffer so much more than the neighbors my friends and I are used to.
Again, the word play is brilliant, but it stings in a way only low income and people of color have felt in a significant way. The honesty of the band lies in direct contrast to the majority of mainstream rap. It hurts for me to say and to acknowledge, but I have no idea what that's like. As a white man I’ve struggled with writing this article. Not because of how little I might know about the subject, but because it paints a picture I don't really understand. As a person who has at moments conquered many obstacles and even a disability, I can still see how lucky I was that it wasn’t harder. You might not be aware, but this is part of the reason it's taking me so long to get this completed. I’m overwhelmed with everything around me, but the spirit of the band has been a blessing during an incredibly trying personal time, as well as the (rightful) civil unrest and (rightful) animosity towards an administration who at best seem either hell bent on ignoring the plagues of the past and the present, or at worst actively stoking the flames, both literally and metaphorically.
Out of nowhere though, and right on time, Run the Jewels 4 came out about a week early. Much like the other records in their arsenal, it builds on what came before and improves drastically. At this point in their run, the songs are purely political, pointedly taking apart the microcosm of bullshit currently permeating our air and infecting us. Songs like “JU$T” featuring Pharrel, spitting a surprisingly political segment and de la Rocha doing what he always has, hit in the sort of manner that all political anthems arise from. A place of anger at the system yes, but also at the people who are just now pulling their heads out of the sand and figuring out how bad it is for a great many.
For decades music has had a say in how we perceived and shaped our opinions. If you were a young hippie in the 1960’s, you probably loved Joan Baez for her gentle serenades about change and understanding. In the 70’s and 80’s we listened to Gil Scott Heron, the Clash and U2. once the 80’s came around it was Public Enemy and the like. It’s here we start to get a very real glimpse into the “urban” world as the media has often referred to it. The walls were being shattered, and we couldn’t look away.
There are songs that hit at the exact time it would be most impactful. “Walking in the Snow” is one of those songs. The song emerges in the middle moments of RTJ4, like an unexpected moment of dread in a horror movie. It's a song that shows you how high the stakes are, and how important resistant, yet logically sound music and art can be. El’s verse is casual but critical, but it’s not the main feature. The narrative painted by Killer Mike is stark and terrifying, a world where you’re determined to be a wash based on generations of unacknowledged bias, at best. The fact that the song was written possibly long before the death of George Floyd, yet it features the all too eerie “I can’t breathe” brings even more depth to how bad the problem is.
The year is 2020, the month is now July. The anger in the country is palpable in a way I havent seen conveyed in a very long time. The system has fallen apart, and many people are still stuck in their homes, while others who listened to our leaders are dying because they’re ignoring logical science. The environment couldn’t be more ripe for a moment from lower income backgrounds, who are making the world better, more loving and understanding through acknowledgment of our past pains and losses. The revolution is here, spread the news. Run the Jewels forever.
Landon Murray is a music connooisseur who craves sounds of all shapes and textures. He's seen over 2000 bands and looks forward to welcoming you into his world of sound,
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