Music for the Fucked Present
Writing about anything other than racist autocrats and constitutional crises feels fucking idiotic at present. Reading about much else does, too (I just made refried beans, which I lack a recipe for, and, given that the browser opens to the NYTimes, I felt like a goddamn other-way looker, one of those—as Killer Mike calls em—”All-Lives-Matter-ass white folks”—just typing in refried beans recipe instead of forcing my face again into the fetid shit of contemporary American undemocracy.
And yet, shit’s gotta keep happening—I’m too young to know what it looks or feels like to live within a resistance, but I’m guessing there’s evidence of it everywhere (at least there is for now, before the crack-downs begin and we’re calling the authorities on our neighbors). In this context it feels important or at least worthy to mention—how could you not already know? Please already know—that Run the Jewels have a new album out, RTJ3, which album actually surprise-dropped on xmas eve (some of us got the wonderful chance to quit wrapping our kids’ presents and cease paying attention to Love Actually to scurry over to the computer and buy that shit instantly), which was “officially released” in mid-January, and which album will, by dint of when it was dropped/released, likely be my favorite album for both 2016 and 2017, though you shouldn’t give the slightest shit about my favorite albums might be. What you should care about are what albums are gonna make you feel, and think, and want to dance and scream and change, and to that end, RTJ3 is the perfect album of the fucked present.
A complete side note: go see them live if you can; even better, see them live with Gangsta Boo opening simply so that you can (finally) hear her amazing verse from “Love Again” live, and, if you’re really lucky, pass Gangsta Boo herself as you’re on your way out of the show, and tell her she’s a total badass simply in the off-chance she’ll say thank you baby in a voice that you wouldn’t mind hearing daily saying, well, anything at all (she’s a fucking national treasure).
It’s easy from the shitstorm that is 2017 to forget 2014. Here’s yr stomach-punch/reminder: Mike Brown. Here’s another: Eric Garner. More: Tamir Rice. Further: Trayvon Martin’s murder’d been aquitted at 2013’s end. That’s the world into which Run The Jewels 2 was released. I don’t know about you, but it felt, at the time, like the big battle was beginning. Even with the election that year being a blue-to-red bloodbath, 2014 felt like the start of something, a rallying cry as the war initiated. Certainly, anyway, it didn’t feel possible for the country to keep continuing along as its black citizens were killed again and again by cops.
Here, for instance, is Run The Jewel’s video for “Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck),” a video I’d really like to watch sometime before my daughters graduate college without feeling like it’s frighteningly timely:
Not all the album felt as politically engaged/incendiary, yet overwhelmingly RTJ2 felt like a barricade album, a soundtrack for troops strapping up: finally, again, in the news, America was bearing profound awful witness its zombie-hearted racism (and classism, and sexism), seeing its police continue to kill black people with impunity, seeing women get denied access, seeing poor kids just left to get fucked in shit school districts, and then seeing the push-back from white folks claiming their success was earned, white folks claiming All Lives Mattered, white folks claiming all these dead black people must’ve done something to’ve earned those police bullets.
Since 2014 things have gotten gravely worse, and it feels like it’s a rare day that new names—Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, Philando Castille, Walter Scott, Samuel DuBose, the Charleston 9—aren’t added to the awful list. Plus now we’ve gone on the equivalent of a political bender—fuck it! keep fucking drinking!—and have elected a nightmare which, in the best-case scenario, leaves enough of the country intact so that when we come to+sober up we’ll have something left to build and not just the husks of a legendarily good idea with all the money and power scammed away by a bunch of chickenshits.
And, at least for me, one of the exciting aspects of a new Run the Jewels album was the opportunity for new fight songs, new let’s-get-moving anthems.
So let’s be clear about that, before all else: RTJ3 is not the next iteration of “Close Your Eyes” or “Lie, Cheat, Steal,” and the heaviest hitters on here take more listens for their gravity to sink in than the easy-access of…well, most of RTJ2. This isn’t at all a dig, but simply to note that there was a real holy-shit magic to RTJ2 that, one presumes, is hard as hell to catch again. (A not-important-but-worth-acknowledging note: the first tracks on RTJ1 and RTJ3 begin in silence and slowly come in, increasing in volume; the first track in RTJ2 begins with Killer Mike shouting “I’m gonna bang this bitch the fuck out!”; the difference in styles, in stance, seems at least worth acknowledging.)
Plus RTJ3 has taken longer than any of Killer Mike and El-P’s other albums. 2 years they’ve spent on this. That’s no judgment, just facts: a year separated 1+2. That fact’s directly related to maybe the biggest aspect of Run the Jewels in 2017: that they’re now Run the Jewels; in ’13 and ’14, for their first two releases, Run the Jewels was this rad pairing of two well-known and -established rap guys who, well into their careers, found each other, hit a dynamite synthesis, and started blasting away, taking down fuckboys and hitting it with the hardness of artists who’ve slogged enough to realize there’s nothing to lose in going for it.
And so they went for it, earning well-deserved massive accolades, which is great, but it also makes listening to RTJ3 weird: this is a group that’s till now felt defined by the outsider chips they wore on their shoulders, dudes who took the piss out of everybody in the establishment and of course now sort of are the establishment. Which is nothing critical at all—fucking hell, if we’re gonna have an establishment, it needs to be populated with groups like Run the Jewels—but does at least bear noting: these are folks who’ve crossed a line now. They know it, we know it (they were in the goddamn NYTimes talking about protest music in January; they should be, and should’ve been for years, but it’s still new realms), and so the Q now is: what do you do once the light comes shining toward you?
The album starts with “Down,” and the very first words are from Killer Mike, who says “I hope.” Specifically, he hopes to not go back to dealing with dope, but it’s still an auspicious start to an album dropped in such tumultuous times. “Down” features a chanting chorus that ends “but even birds with broken wings want to fly, y’all,” and both Killer Mike and El-P spend the song emphasizing focus, and as good as the track is, it’s place-setting for “Talk To Me,” the second track that’s got Killer Mike, in the first thirty seconds, talking about going to war with the devil who wears “a bad toupee and a spray tan,” (before reminding us he’s “born black that’s dead on arrival / my job is to fight for survival / despite these all-lives-matter-ass white folks”) and has El-P dropping one of his usual blistering killshots: “You think baby Jesus killed Hitler just so I’d whisper?” The track’s absolute fire with Killer Mike offering receipts a minute and a half in, shouting like a preacher: “I told y’all suckers, I told you, I told you on RTJ1, then I told you again on RTJ2, and you still didn’t believe me, so here we go, RTJ3.” That call-out ends with the song’s title, talk to me, entering immediately after Killer’s Mike’s finish, and suddenly we know the realm: we’ll have to be talking, back and forth, each to each.
Look, I’m an English major and I dig words: I can go like this for days, noting the phenomenal moments that stud through each song (and even going full-hyperbolic I’d still miss plenty—in “Talk to Me,” there’s a good argument El-P’s killer lines are in fact “Huh, what me, worry? nah buddy I’ve lost before, so what / You again, I’m dirt motherfucker, I can’t be crushed,” and not the ones listed above). I’d want to make sure you were entirely aware that, the first couple times through, you’ll be almost magnetically inclined toward the first three, maybe five songs. They’re dynamic, quick, breathless: “Talk to Me” bored straight into “Legend Has It,” from there into “Call Ticketron,” (which El-P noted in the concert was about their dream of playing Madison Square Garden), which is both a hellaciously good track that simultaneously takes the piss out of Ticketmaster, and, after that, you get “Hey Kids,” a track that’s phenomenal even before Danny Brown comes in to finish it out with his crazed, twisted voice.
But after those five tracks the album murks, hard, and here’s where RTJ3, paradoxically, picks up its power. Specifically, you’ve got tracks like “Don’t Get Captured,” which says plenty just in its title, and then, to these ears, the most open, emotionally raw and vulnerable shit RTJ’s ever done with “Thursday in the Danger Room” and “A Report to the Shareholders/Kill Your Masters.” These two tracks round out the album and feature El and Mike not just blasting the usual kinetic braggadocio but leaning into more hurtful, hard-to-say stuff, with El-P rapping about how hard it is to watch a friend die, with Killer Mike noting how his heart broke apart when the mothers of dead black men were brought into the Democratic National Convention. It’s a fantastic trick, this move they make, acknowledging who they are, as public figures (Killer Mike was all over TV, stumping with Bernie, etc.) and, simultaneously, allowing them to note how sorrowful things are. “Not from the same part of town but we both hear the same sound coming / and it sounds like war / and it breaks our hearts,” El-P raps, and you realize you’re listening to guys who have—as they readily admit—spit plenty of fire on all sorts of political topics, and who’ve done their fair share of the usual rap boasting (“I got banana dick your bitch go apeshit when she hit it” Killer Mike raps in “Panther like a Panther”), but are now pulling off maybe the hardest trick in rap: they’re going honest and sad, pulling no punches, and offering not only personal sadness but reflecting back a broader, public sadness.
But what’s better, to me, isn’t that the music or message is polarizing based on left-aisle/right-aisle stuff, but that the sorrow’s immersive, spread everywhere. El-P notes in “Report to the Shareholders” how gov’t folks “Talk clean and bomb hospitals / so I speak with the foulest mouth possible,” and later in the same song Killer Mike opens his verse with “Choose the lesser of the evil people and the devil still gon’ win.” This is system-level sorrow; the grievances of folks who, it seems to me, just want all of us to do better. To want better. To hope better. To live better.
And so despite it being a slightly less accessible album than its immediate predecessor, RTJ3 is actually maybe the best Run the Jewels album, if by best we mean complexity, engagement, willingness to expose. It’s hard to talk about El-P and Killer Mike’s honesty, since they’ve been honest from the get-go, but there’s something almost holy about what they’re attempting here: it’s citizen music. It’s for all of us. A friend and I were talking about the best albums to get through these shit times; he recommended the new Solange, I said RTJ3. Who even knows, right now, what any of us need to listen to to get through his hate, this spasm of hate and distrust. Whatever you end up finding that works, I’d bet big bucks its got the same spirit as what you’ll find here.