war · injustice · revolution
empathy · peace
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2100 opens onto dystopia: a sombre bassline buzzes, the light of a dying sun filtering through dust. Feedback curls harshly at its frayed edges - a dirty, raw sound.
Joined by a rippling synth, Killer Mike's voice cuts through the haze, powerful and earnest. He rhymes many different sounds in his dense intro, enunciating each syllable with insistence.
Run The Jewels' music has always thrived on their deep distrust of power, but in the time since the pair's last album the already broiling pot has truly bubbled over.
From the brutal rise of ISIL and the refugee crisis, to the catastrophically unstable community relations both in the US and in Europe, and culminating in the cultural ouroboros that was the electing of a reality-TV conman to the helm of the free world - hell, just watching the news has become hazardous to mental health.
Run The Jewels
In an unlikely pairing of Atlanta and New York rap, Killer Mike's belligerent truth-telling plays yin to the yang of El-P's more detached cynicism, all underscored by the latter's industrial, energetic beats.
With such a year coming to a close, Killer Mike asks us to check our trajectory before we pass the point of no return.
He is not alone: the US Holocaust Memorial Museum issued a statement condemning hateful rhetoric in no uncertain terms. As white nationalists perform Nazi salutes to celebrate Trump's victory, the Museum reminds us that 'the Holocaust did not begin with killing; it began with words.'
Is it too late? asks Killer Mike urgently. Is even possible to counter the inertia of corporate interest and miseducation before we sail into some nuclear calamity?
Certainly, something has to give: the disenfranchised all over the world who have taken to the streets to protest, sometimes violently, are always a sign of breaking point; riots are pleas for change in 'the language of the unheard'.
As Killer Mike's last line reverberates, the instrumental charges up with a sound like a laser gun before exploding into action. Driven by a clattering drum pattern and a thick, gooey bassline, the music moves forward, a lumbering but deliberate march; progress is slow, but steady.
El-P wakes up to all this, and does two things to cope.
First, he gets high. The joyful use of cannabis to cope with the pain and stress of the world is a recurring strand within Run The Jewels' music - right from their very first track, where El promises to 'smoke till the planet erases'.
Second, he makes the infamous pistol-and-fist. The gesture is the embodiment of the group's name, which is itself slang for 'gimme all you got'. But it is not a purely violent symbol: it has become a metaphor for the reclamation of the justly owed, defiance in the face of oppressive authority and the unabashed pursuit of personal goals.
Like the last man alive in an abandoned city, El offers to be our 'tour guide' to the 'abyss', to shine a light in the dark, perhaps in futility, as the seconds tick down to whatever ruin approaches.
The duo often trade bars within verses, and Killer Mike does so here to remind us drily that it is our children who will harvest what we sow today, while El-P raps, 'Got a bevy ready for the fight': in the end, he is prepared to struggle for what good can be salvaged.
Roll up, roll up
Released after the 'stunning upset', the cover art for 2100 uses their symbol to depict the elaborate game show (politics) that Trump played. The pistol and fist are inflatable, suspended on wires - the conflict is staged; the outrage feigned. Once the event is over, the truth unfolds.
But at heart, El is a man of peace. His rhymes floating on the waves of the instrumental, rocking this way and that like a battered ship on high seas, sadness is palpable in his voice: 'I just wanna live,' he says, reasonably; 'I don't wanna ever have to load a clip'.
Run The Jewels is built on this diversity of personality: they can play the most depraved villains, but when push comes to shove they only really 'hunt bliss'. They long for a life without destruction and exploitation - a childish ideal, El admits, but perhaps a crucial one. After all, politics needs to be romantic.
That altruistic romance is conspicuously missing in the hearts of those with the most power: they are 'sick' to their core, motivated only by earnings and image. 'They don't give a shit', he raps, bluntly.
Killer Mike's 'forehead engravers and slavers of men and women' have no true concern for the dignity of people so far abstracted from them.
El-P continues in this vein, casting those who put profit before peace as soulless, unable to love - and Orwellian in their dismissal of privacy. The workings of global governments and corporations are so deeply intertwined that it has long been financially beneficial to maintain a status quo that inflicts terrible harm in faraway places.
To be aware of this world is to need respite, and El again turns to his vice of choice, 'kissing the sun', blowing smoke into the air in a small but effective act of resistance.
But there is still hope: 'Love will survive', our hero assures us, even in dystopia, as he runs hand in hand with us from the harsh searchlights of the oppressor.
Beneath this cinematic image a mournful guitar plucks a bittersweet tune - a little flaming beacon in the fading dark.
El-P thrives on the thrill of being truly alive, of refusing the bland dictums of authority and going 'wild for the night'.
Together at the end of all things, what really matters for him is human connection, a moment of calm before the storm: 'Look in to my eyes,' he says; 'I am standing at your side for the fight.'
If lasting progress is ever achieved, it will be by 'mind' and not 'might'. The consciousness of the people needs to be raised; there must be a revolution of the heart and a great widening of our circles of empathy.
Sowing division among the people in an effort to occupy them can only distract for a while. In the end, all power crumbles under its own hubris, its own myopia; and El laments the arrogance in dismissing the needs of the people by flipping Mark Twain on his head: 'They could barely even see the dog / They don't see the size of the fight'.
With a shimmer, the beat gains renewed drive; an alarm clock beeps to wake up the other half of this formidable equation.
First things first: 'drink water, smoke blunt', and to round it off, 'clean, oil my Kalashnikov'. As openings go, this one is snappy and direct: the revolution is coming, and to make it through one must prepare.
Killer Mike (so named because he kills microphones, obviously) speaks not of aggression but of defense: men and women who love peace must be ready to protect it, he argues, if the time comes.
A passionate supporter of the unusual Bernie Sanders, Mike has spent the last year watching 'the evening news givin' yous views' - a reference to the media echo chambers that keep communities separated by feeding a steady stream of biased exaggerations and half-truths into our screens. We are presented with the illusion of choosing our 'master' while real power remains hidden and abstracted from us.
Killer Mike's close involvement with Sanders' campaign gave him insight and evidence from 'behind the curtain' of the political machine, and he saw 'the devil' working close up. (Exactly to whom this refers should be of little mystery, but on the semi-opener track Talk To Me he spells it out nonetheless: 'went to war with the devil and Shaytan / He wore a bad toupée and a spray tan'.)
And what has Mike learned about life after more than four decades? As a distant guitar weaves in the background, Mike takes a break from rapping to give us his mantra in a sing-song couplet, warm and heartfelt: don't compromise your beliefs, partake with others in the simplest pleasures - love, leaf, laughter - and stick around long enough to enjoy it all.
While it is often easier to despair, despair engenders fear and hatred - which in turn feed the fire of divisive, hawkish politics; but refusing to descend into self-pity and choosing to open instead of close one's heart robs opportunists like Trump of their rhetoric, undermining their power.
Many like to say that our modern, connected world in fact disconnects us from each other; others disagree. But in world more complicated than it has ever been, with more potential for global communication than ever before, we are certainly liable to lose sight of the local.
Now, more than ever, Mike believes, we must learn to live with each other, to foster community; after all, he says, sincerely, 'kinfolk life is beautiful'.
Forget the haircut
Michael Render, as he is known to the government, practices what he preaches. He and his wife Shay run a barbershop in his hometown of Atlanta, in part to provide a place for young men to interact positively and let off steam, helping them to 'grow into the type of men the community needs'.
As the bittersweet guitar melody from the first verse winds once more through the swaying instrumental, Mike goes deeper. 'I refuse to kill another human being in the name of a government', he raps earnestly, stripping the act of war down to its naked core: state-sanctioned murder.
Violence has been the modus operandi of all our ancestors, bathing humanity's timeline in blood, moulding our culture and thus our perceptions. We study war in our history lessons but rarely pause in our detached analysis to consider the abject horror of killing.
Untold generations have committed the ultimate crime under the banner of righteous war, and while it might be argued that some of the blood spilt was necessary, it always seemed to me morally dubious to sign over responsibility for using physical force.
I am no pacifist; but if you are to take someone's life, wouldn't you at least want the act to be your own choice, justified by your own reasoning instead of that of a faceless elite with a proven track record of deceit, double-dealing and total disregard for the poor?
So Killer Mike rejects the received narrative. He has moved beyond the toxic influences of our culture that teach us to distance those whose experiences we do not share and find more difficult to understand, thus normalising immorality against the 'other'.
The ubiquitous pull of profit, too, conditions us to look down on those without, and to constantly strive for fulfilment through the acquisition of more things.
But as someone who has been around long enough to know, Mike reminds us that 'gettin' more ain't what's more / Only thing more is the love'. Empathy and understanding are often the hardest tools to use, but they are almost always the most effective.
As half of his country begins the painful process of reconciliation with the other half, Mike asks that you foster a loving heart and an open mind.
The atmosphere on this track is markedly different from any other track in Run The Jewels' discography. While always essentially themselves, they so often inhabit characters that the earnest tone of the song is startling.
There is a final kick on the drums and an echoing shout before the soft, yearning tones of BOOTS ease us into the chorus. 'Save my swollen heart', he implores, his voice swelling with the anguish and oppression of so many.
The gentle harmonies on 'heart' bend the word smoothly upwards, like a prayer offered to anyone listening. 'Bring me home from the dark', it goes, as he seeks some release from the pain and worry; 'take me up' out of this abyss. With every repetition, his voice climbs, ascending skywards.
As his vocals build, so does the instrumental. A pounding bass meets with the whistle of guitar feedback - a dense tumult that evokes the tightly-wound tension of our times.
And then, it stops.
The storm clouds break, the cacophony ceases; even the drums fall away. The rhythm is kept by a lone guitar, strumming a modest melody that rolls this way and that. The only other sounds are distant, glowing notes that reverberate as if through the empty halls of a forgotten castle.
It is a moment of peace, of reflection.
After a few beats, BOOTS' voice returns in a tuneful sigh, an odd little flourish that pulls us back into the present moment. 'Up, up up', he sings, climbing ever higher, as the bittersweet guitar melody from the verses comes back with renewed verve, distorted and bassy now.
The word dangles off the edge of the chorus, stretching and echoing as if teetering on the verge of transcendence. But there is yet a little more to say.
'Seen the devil give a sermon in the church', Killer Mike raps - and this time the devil is more abstract, more pointedly loaded with religious imagery.
Mike has often railed against organised religion, not out of a lack of spirituality but because he understands its all-too-frequent function as yet another way to keep people docile. 'A pope is a fraud,' he raps on Angel Duster, 'A church is a lie / A queen is the same damn thing / You should pray to your fake god that she die'.
Where the priest who is supposed to be the paragon of virtue is so often an agent of evil, Mike finds true, deep virtue in a stripper who displays her sensuality for money.
She is a sinner, by traditional standards, but Mike sees the complex humanity behind her actions: she is working to feed her child, unbending under hardship, sacrificing something of herself for the good of another.
Instead of distancing himself and pitying her, he greets her with the same empathy he requested of us in his last verse, sparing a small amount of his material wealth and offering a moment of non-objectifying connection.
After all, he knows the struggle first-hand, and the stigma that comes from being considered second-class: 'I done been down so many times / Walked on like a dirty rug'. Elevated now by his music and his message to a position of influence, he is determined to stand his ground and take back the dignity that is his by right.
Chemistry is the lifeblood of Run The Jewels. When they met, both were already rap veterans - but neither could have predicted their pairing would blossom so fruitfully. In El's words, 'You’re not expecting at 35 to meet your best friend.' The feeling is mutual: Mike says he 'prayed for a brother as a kid and God has brought me one.'
Killer Mike's last word - 'worthy' - echoes out into the night, and El-P brings us into the final verse of the song, philosophising about the nature of our viewpoints in a call-and-response flow that calms the pace of the song as it approaches its end.
His tone is weary, meditative. He worries that just being right is not enough; in an increasingly post-truth world, perhaps it is naïve to speak truth to power and expect things to change. 'What a joy it'd be to see some peace in this life', El muses, sounding once more like the despondent kid from the first verse for whom the idea of real-world violence is painful.
Deeper and more troubling still, our desires and values are surely shaped by the culture we consume and the political options we are presented. Just as Mike observes that we are conditioned to see military might as our go-to solution for complicated problems, so El suspects our aspirations may be hopelessly limited too.
Like the inhabitants of Plato's cave, who see only shadows of the full palette of reality, our cultural institutions keep us 'in the dark / Hoping just to see a beam of the light'.
Among the echoes, BOOTS' anguished voice soars into the mix one final time, riding the uncertain waves of El-P's instrumental, pleading for release. Shouts bounce around in the background and the whistling feedback spirals onwards, driving us inevitably into the next era.
And with a final kick, and a flash, the music is gone, leaving us alone on a precipice. We gaze into the future with apprehension and, perhaps, hope.
What does the year 2100 have in store for us? It seems as though we are making progress, but history is often a matter of perception; the progress we have made is fragile. Run The Jewels hope for the best, but are prepared for the worst.
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