Design of the Week | Run the Jewels
In, of all places, a critique of Jay Z's album 'Magna Carta Holy Grail' at The New Yorker, Sasha Frere-Jones writes with astounding economy the best description of what it's like to be alive in the racially polarized America of modern times:
"Considering how American the feeling is, there should be a word in English for the despair that attends our moments of racial atomization. Every few years, an event flares through the unsheathed wiring of our collective guilt, enmity, and shame, and it feels like we have fewer words than ever. We watch one more violation of humanity unfold. We look around, throw something soft against a wall, and surrender to weeks of a sciatic pulse that has no name and no treatment. In Portuguese, there are words like “saudade,” for the beautiful sadness that immobilizes us and sweetens the air. This American sensation wants a sharper word, something like “helpless” but more tannic, more acute. We don’t have this word, and we need it more every year."
The article was comparing the tepid, commercial nature of Jay Z's album with the ferocious energy of Kanye West's latest, 'Yeezus,' released a few months before, in the wake of the just announced verdict of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. West's album is prescient and timely while Jay Z's is "like Jay Z asked Pandora to produce the record and then left for a meeting." It also discusses Harry Belafonte's criticism of Jay Z and Beyonce for having “turned their back on social responsibility.”
I was only familiar with Run the Jewels through the track they did with Zack de la Rocha until recently. This fall they seemed to be everywhere I turned: on Stephen Colbert with TV on the Radio as their backing band, and headlining Champaign-Urbana's rad Pygmalion music and literature festival.
Comprised of rappers El-P and Killer Mike, one of the more recognizable aspects of the band is their logo, or album art, designed by artist Nick Gazin featuring bloody, bandaged hands, one in the shape of a gun, the other holding up a thick gold chain. I had always imagined the gesture was symbolic of class insurrection, and I still like to imagine it is. From an interview with Entertainment Weekly:
“The blood stains almost imply a horror movie, but I see it as the hands have survived things,” says Gazin, who likes to imagine narratives for all his art. “I think it makes sense considering the year we’ve had. The whole image is about coming back after having been beaten down.”
It's hard to imagine a more incendiary and prescient band than Run the Jewels. Their music is critical of religion, Reagonomics, and references Margaret Thatcher. At a show the evening when it was announced that the police officer who killed Mike Brown in St. Louis would not be indicted, Killer Mike took the stage early and delivered the following impassioned address:
"It is not about race, it is not about class, it is not about color. It is about what they killed him for: It is about poverty, it is about greed, and it is about a war machine. It is us against the motherfucking machine."
Two weeks ago, Killer Mike spoke eloquently and passionately in support of Bernie Sanders. In a recent article at The New Republic by Bijan Stephen - "Rebel Without a Pause," which you should definitely read - they list Killer Mike's recent appearances of a political nature: accompanying Arianna Huffington to the White House Correspondents' Dinner, interviews on Real Time with Bill Maher, NPR, BBC. Stephen sums up their contemporary relevance wonderfully:
"The songs, which speak to mass incarceration, police brutality, foreign war, corruption, religion, and more, are irresistible listening, pulled straight from the deep reservoir of contemporary American racial anxiety. The sound and sensibility is brash and muscular, punk rock wearing a rap suit."
And no other music video better captures the futility and desperation of modern times than theirs for track "Close Your Eyes (and Count to Fuck)."