When we last left our heroes, hip-hop duo Run the Jewels had appeared at the Royal Oak Music Theater in support of their entirely reluctant, crowdsourced remix of RTJ2 set to cat sounds, Meow the Jewels. Michael Render aka Killer Mike had embarked on a national media tour, making appearances on numerous mainstream media outlets in support of Bernie Sanders' run for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination. Cut to present day, and Render has loudly declared in front of an audience of NPR employees that politics are dead.
Earlier this month, Render and partner Jaime Meline aka El-P appeared on NPR's Tiny Desk Concerts and the coastal media crowd completely lost their shit. After delivering three tracks from their Christmas Eve release RTJ3, music journalists across the country were chomping at the bit to blurb and repost the heck out of what seems to have become a fantastic if somewhat unlikely platform for hip-hop performers to re-create more intimate, studio-like chemistry in a public setting (see also Gucci Mane and producer Zaytoven's great performance late last year).
But one thing no one dared to touch were Render's closing remarks. "At some point in the future they're going to try to label us a political rap group, and that we are not," he said. "We don't care what party you belong to. We don't care who you supported. We don't care what you're doing tomorrow politically. We care that socially, every one of you know you are absolutely born free, and nothing has a right to interrupt that freedom."
His words seemed directly at odds with the most prominent analysis of RTJ3, most notably Hua Hsu's recent work for The New Yorker, and Robert Christgau in Noisey. But as perhaps one of the more astute public intellectuals of our time, it is no surprise that Render's thinking is more in line with analysts like the BBC's Adam Curtis, who have observed that even politicians themselves seem to have moved beyond 20th century ideological precepts and into a role that more closely resembles mere managers of society.
And as someone with a clearly advanced understanding of nuance, Render's remarks will ring true to anyone who has found themselves having to beat the dead horse, in 2017, of explaining to people who say that heavy bass and B-words make them uncomfortable, that sometimes art can be seen a reflection of life and the world around us, rather than simply a declaration of one's beliefs. Just as his opening line from RTJ3 ("I hope with the highest of hopes/that I never have to go back to the trap and my days of dealing with dope") might tug at the heartstrings of anyone who has ever felt themselves slip into the quicksand of criminality.
Meline has described the group's approach to RTJ3 as "the anatomy of a riot," and presumably, the pair belong to a school of thought that see this and other facets of life on the fringes — like its soundtrack — as the byproduct of our surroundings, if not political per se. When we rejoin Render, he is back where we last saw him on RTJ2, posted up at his usual observation point on "very scary" MLK, with a Kalashnikov rifle by his side out of sheer necessity. But the pair have both said they reject the dread many of us enter into 2017 with, and the album's tone is characteristically defiant, rather than defeatist.
The supporting cast of RTJ3 is strong. Zack de la Rocha and singer BOOTS both make follow-up appearances after lending their talents on some of the most memorable tracks from RTJ2, and Detroit listeners will undoubtedly be pleased to see Danny Brown's name on the credits for "Hey Kids (Bumaye)." Hsu of The New Yorker has noted how dense the album seems at times, and if it were possible, RTJ3 does seem to live up to promises of being even "darker" and "angrier" than previous work. In the present day, it is hard to imagine music that more effectively captures the spirit of those who feel little if any connection to politics as usual. And few, if any, have come as close to articulating a way out.
Run the Jewels perform at the at the Royal Oak Music Theatre on Saturday, Feb. 18; doors at 7 p.m.; 318 W. Fourth St., Royal Oak; 248-399-2980; royaloakmusictheatre.com; tickets are $30, $40 at the door.