This past Christmas Day — or the 2nd night of Chanukah, or day before Kwanzaa or non-demoninationally, the 25th of December — Run the Jewels, one of the most innovative and important Hip-Hop duos in modern music released their long-awaited third album. For free (as a download). A month or more before it was expected in stores. I downloaded it yesterday and immediately played it from start to finish in my backyard studio, fulfilling my New Years’ resolution to listen to entire albums, not just single songs, in one sitting (or standing, or ideally, dancing) and without headphones.
I grew up listening to records. I spent hundreds of teenage hours hanging out in record shops like Licorice Pizza and Wherehouse and Tower and Record Trader and Moby Disc. Scouring the used shelves for hidden gems. I’d hurry home, arms filled with bags of albums, then spread them out on the shag carpet in my bedroom and carefully decide what to play first. I’d gently set the chosen record onto my Technics SL-23 turntable, making sure to keep my fingers to the vinyl’s edges. As the music played, I’d follow along with the liner notes or lyrics, interspersed with airdrumming/guitaring/saxophoning, and singing (once I knew the words, or knew them well enough) in full tuneless voice. And as soon as side A had finished it’s last note and before the stylus and needle could return back to the cradle, I’d already have the album flipped over, side B blasting away through my 36″ Yamaha speakers.
30 plus years later, I find myself listening, more often than not, to fairly compressed mp3 tracks, stored on a smartphone, through tiny, tinny earbuds. I know headphone technology has improved of late, but I’d already lost some of my attention to fidelity (surely some hearing loss as well), not to mention having allowed the power of “the album” fade away from my musical repertoire. I’d never let music fall by the wayside, but I’ve found that when I put on music nowadays, I’m always doing some other thing or things at the same time. Multitasking. Diluting my attention. Sending emails, tapping out texts, sitting at my desk at work, working out at the gym. Writing blog posts like this.
So, Run the Jewels 3, an album I’ve been eagerly anticipating, would represent the first of my 2017 musical promises. A self-prescribed form of therapy. Music had gotten me through so many awkward, jubilant, confusing, sad, celebratory moments in my life for as long as I can remember, and I decided it was time to up the dosage.
RTJ3 gobsmacked me right from the start. The layers of guitar samples, the bass-heavy beats, EL-P and Killer Mike’s dextrous, syncopated wordflow. It sounded as urgent as early Public Enemy and as sonically experimental. I am not a big fan of most modern rap; I find most of it overproduced, filled with macho braggadocio, and lazy. I grew up with old-school hip hop. Kurtis Blow, Tribe Called Quest, Run DMC, Beastie Boys. Sure there was plenty of bragging, but it was (almost) always tongue in cheek and never mean. And there was often an impassioned political edge behind many of those hip hop classics. They didn’t shy away from the dark realities that these artists saw ripping apart their communities. Run the Jewels doesn’t necessarily sound “old school.” Though it’s clear they are influenced by artists like Chuck D. and KRS One, maybe Jay-Z. Their sound is not one of nostalgia. They are innovators and agitators, educators and instigators. It’s music that requires repeated listenings, not just to catch up with the lyrics but also because of the impeccable production of EL-P. I’ve listened to the entire thing twice now and I still feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface.
With the 8th song on the album, “Thieves,” beginning with a sample from one of my favorite Twilight Zone episodes, the eerily prescient “The Obsolete Man,” I knew this was gonna be the song for me to Warble. Watch the clip above and tell me it doesn’t send a chill down your spine. The parallels are eerie.Tunde Adebimpe from TV on the Radio guests on the track, adding his vocals near the end. It’s not a conventional verse/chorus song, there’s some innovative playing around with form in “Thieves.” The song is an unflinching look at what African Americans have had to deal with in terms of police violence, systemic racism, and inner city struggle. It’s heavy but not heavy handed, it’s urgent but with perspective. It opens, like I said, with a quote from Rod Serling and then, at the end, audio from one of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s speeches rises above the beat. “A riot is the language of the unheard,” these last words ring out, giving the song a historical perspective, a context to place it in, as a song for protest.
Perhaps hyperbole, but I think it just might become a song for our times.