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Run the Jewels: music for the struggle

Kevin Taghabon

January 17, 2017

Political rap supergroup Run the Jewels gifted the world a musical sledgehammer to rebut a toxic year in the closing weeks of 2016. Run the Jewels 3, their third eponymous studio album, features even more of their socially conscious lyrics grafted on top of El-P's powerful beats. On the direction of the album, Killer Mike has said he and El-P set out to make the project “meaner, darker, harder...even f****** angrier” than their previous work. They have thoroughly succeeded.

The album's production is unrelentingly muscular and punchy from the first to the last track, an accomplishment that puts it beyond their first two records. The beats are thick with dark synthesizers and heavy bass, matching the tone of the whole work. The delivery of the lyrics is equally aggressive, yet clean. There are no milquetoast faux-singing attempts by the emcees or wimpy autotune laden choruses which are so popular among big-name corporate rappers. “Legend Has It” for example, instead features crowd chants of “R-T-J!” that sound more like a mass protest than a concert.

This is no coincidence. The rap duo has chosen more than ever to angle their album at the political and economic establishment. This is a welcome pivot, as the couple of songs on their first two albums that veered far from this were the weakest lyrically. A glance at the track listing gives one an idea of what to anticipate: “Don't Get Captured”, “Thieves!”, “A Report to the Shareholders/Kill Your Masters.” This last track, the album closer, features a ferocious uncredited verse by Zack De La Rocha of Rage Against the Machine fame, who has collaborated with Run the Jewels before. Never has De La Rocha's brand of political fury been more at home on a rap track.

Killer Mike and El-P's poetry leaves little to be misinterpreted. Notable lines include: “The evening news givin' yous views/Telling you to pick your master for president/Then behind the curtain, seen the devil workin'”, “Born Black, that's dead on arrival/My job is to fight for survival/In spite of these #AllLivesMatter-ass white folk”, “ big ideas, got plans to rob/Any Rothschild living, Bill Gates and the ghost of Jobs”. “Kill Your Masters'” chorus is chants of just that. The majority of the album tackles themes of police brutality, the drug war, as well as the hardships associated with living in poverty. Other songs invoke the disparate futures of revolution or dystopia.

These are not echoes of the posturing that ghostwritten corporate rappers make despite their untold millions, decades divorced from any activism or life in the “hood.” Killer Mike has been beaten by the police. He was also the most tireless supporter of Bernie Sanders in the hip hop community. Mike's breadth of understanding of politics and history is impressive. In his DJVlad interview he explained, “the labour movement goes back over 100 years in this country. If you look at Eugene Debbs for instance, he was fighting for your 8 hour work day 100 years work an 8 hour work day today because of the socialist and anarchist movements of labour in the late 1800s and early 1900s. No capitalist decided, 'wow!'”.

Run The Jewels have used their skyrocketing popularity for good causes. “Meow The Jewels” for example was a joke project proposed on their site for $40,000. When a fan in Arizona actually managed to organize and raise the money, the duo decided to remix their entire second album with cat sounds, with the proceeds going to the families of unarmed black men slain by police officers. Surplus funds then went to help cover the legal fees of incarcerated political protesters. They too have their finger on the pulse of the realities of the music industry, releasing all their albums online for free, with Mike asserting that fans will buy merchandise or tickets if they truly love the music.

Run the Jewels provide a template for musicians with a political conscience. To them it is more important to deliver a message than to dodge the pressing issues of the day in the name of alienating no one. Every moment of the album reflects the genuine passion of these musicians. Their sharp production and lyrical skills are commendable. What sets Run The Jewels apart from their peers is their studio, stage, and street dedication to the pressing issues we face today.

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