If anyone doubts hip-hop's place in American history as a true social movement, one needs only to be introduced to the work of one Killer Mike, one half of hip-hop duo Run the Jewels. Killer Mike has been dissecting the question of armed struggle for years (notably on his solo work "Reagan," and on Run the Jewels' "Lie, Cheat, Steal").
Mike and the other half of RTJ, MC/producer El-P, seem to have anticipated a year of politicized hip-hop with their second full-length album, RTJ2, released just after the initial period of unrest in Ferguson last year. It set the tone with one of the most powerful stories of state-sanctioned violence and personal alienation, in "Early." That marked the return of Rage Against the Machine's Zack de La Roca with the album's third single, "Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck)," a track as evocative of revolutionary fervor as any in the RATM catalogue.
Run the Jewels appeared on the BBC, unapologetically defending rioting as a means of a marginalized community achieving its political goals. Unsurprisingly, Mike also recently endorsed the candidacy of Bernie Sanders.
RTJ have perhaps received more undivided media attention in the past month than in their entire career. But instead of their subversive content or violent imagery, the noise they have generated has been for their September release, Meow the Jewels, a remix of RTJ2 set entirely to cat sounds. El-P's signature production style — grimy, sinister, and foreboding — is a marked departure from the trap- or house-inflected tracks currently in heavy rotation, and certainly more challenging. But Meow the Jewels was different, said everyone from The New Yorker to Pitchfork; and is it even "good?"
The implicit question at the heart of much analysis of Meow the Jewels is whether it trivializes the original content of RTJ2. Hip-hop fans look at acts like RTJ as defenders of the real, the last stop in a trajectory that has taken previous genres from the ghetto to the elevator. So does Meow the Jewels represent a step toward hip-hop as muzak? We should say categorically that it does not.
At the turn of the 20th century, the revolutionary worker movement in America adopted the black cat as its symbol, representing defiance and sabotage. This spirit is certainly alive in the first video from Meow the Jewels. "Oh My Darling (Don't Meow)," is set in an anarchic parallel universe where giant cats have overrun the city, raining down Godzilla-sized turds on cop cars from above. For any RTJ fans who still don't approve, they've have also just released a new song as part of the soundtrack for the upcoming gang documentary Rubble Kings, which feels much more like an RTJ track.
Run the Jewels appears live at the Royal Oak Music Theatre on October 24; Show starts at 8 p.m.; 314 W. 4th St., Royal Oak; tickets start at $35.
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