Beats, rhymes, and the radical centre

The recent debate between David Longstreth of Dirty Projectors and Robin Pecknold of Fleet Foxes, on the state of indie rock, brought to the public’s eye an issue I’ve been grappling with for a little while. In an age of such discontent, even a radical moderate such as myself can find some solace in the sometimes-disproportionate anger of politically-conscious hip hop.

There’s a new Spoon single, “Hot Thoughts”, and it reminds me in its sparse, ghostly tone of the recent song by A Tribe Called Quest, called “Whateva Will Be”. Go and listen to the pair for yourself.

I often surprise people when I profess my love of politically-conscious hip hop. What with my yearning for the days when Pitchfork used only to get excited over a new release from Calexico or Grizzly Bear, it seems unlikely that I would get sucked into ATCQ and, most importantly in the last couple of years, Run The Jewels. This ‘side project’ from the rappers El-P (Jaime Meline) and Killer Mike (Michael Render) has overtaken the rest of their careers, becoming the people’s microphone—whether on the trail with Bernie Sanders, in the marches of #BlackLivesMatter, or on the headphones of the more savvy elements of our young.

But there are good reasons for my love of this kind of music. The innate jazziness, whether in the samples, the rapping, or both, certainly factors into how I respond to the works of ATCQ. They released the closing chapter of their remarkable career last year, entitled We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your service. It features a bewildering arsenal of aesthetics, including the woozy, patois-inflected, infected dinner-jazz of “Solid Wall of Sound” (which samples Elton John), and a rather blissed-out kosmische exhibited on the second disc (“Lost Somebody” screws around with a few phrases of a Can song). I’m not qualified to analyse the rapping in any great detail, but I’ll weigh in and suggest that its freeform style is in sharp contrast to even some of the most lauded rappers of dis generation.

You can’t accuse Run The Jewels of being jazz, even if their latest album does have a Kamasi Washington-featuring back-half barnstormer. Instead, I think I’m drawn to their righteous anger, just as we are often attracted to the allure of the ‘other’. Though I am a creature of the radical centre, wedded to moderation and reasoned debate, there is something thrilling about their spitting braggadocio like it’s the hewn-on-a-tablet truth. As El-P concedes on the opener, “Down”, their words “came from feeling what a pure absence of hope can do”.

Around half of the lyrics on Run The Jewels 3 are just re-statements of the artists’ marquee name—as if the listener might have forgotten whose work they’re currently digesting. This much is, if you suspend your disbelief, surprisingly entertaining. (On “Legend Has It”, Mike claims, “RT&J / We the new PB&J”.) The other half of the lyrics succeed in whipping the tablecloth from beneath the competition. The music is far from perfunctory, but it’s the quips, the wordplay and the slippery lips that really grip you.

Great rap frequently marries the sacred and the profane. In the case of RTJ3, the signs are everywhere. Returning to the opening number, Mike keeps coming back to this chest-pumping passage, wherein angelic harmonies back him up in boasting, “I know a few people pray for my demise, y’all / But like cream I had to rise, I had to rise, y’all”. It’s bewitching: simultaneously self-hyping and self-flagellating. On the early highlight “Call Ticketron”, which is set to the unspooling instructions of a jerryrigged automated ticket machine, the pair spin an outlandish tale of headlining at Madison Square Garden (the irony being that they have in fact performed at the venue, albeit as the opening act for Jack White). Amidst an ambiguous alien invasion (don’t ask), Mike charts a dystopian sequence of events, but “await[s] your reply with a blunt and a beer / I be the high guy with the belly and the beard”.

If this is indeed “spiritual warfare”, to quote a sample in the bridge of “Talk To Me”, then “Thursday In The Danger Room” is the dose of religion, with Mike and El weaving a moving elegy to a departing friend around Kamasi Washington’s exasperated sax and a collection of wheezing synths. But even here, amidst the remembrance, is anger, because as the song unfolds we see the full picture: “No killer was captured, but I know he listening / So I’d like to tell you in song / The streets was a jungle, I pray that you made it, I hope that / You righted your wrongs”. The dead man was a victim of senseless violence—perhaps dying at the hands of an over-zealous cop, or perhaps in the crossfire of a turf war.

Of course I can look back wistfully at 2009, purportedly the apotheosis of indie rock. That year, spun along the axis of Bitte Orca, Merriweather Post Pavilion, and Veckatimest, was indeed an obelisk. But the fury and the populism of the here-and-now demands an artistic response, and that cannot be in the “fertile strain” that David Longstreth describes. And so I’ll keep enjoying the somewhat excess violence of the pistol and fist.

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