I’m not a big fan of writing music criticism. I love reading other people’s reviews, but I can’t quickly listen to an album, form an opinion within a week and concisely put those words to paper.
But when I do, I often think it would be beneficial to split music into two camps: fun party music and serious artistic pieces. There are plenty of songs I love that are great to blast over some speakers to a crowded room but have no lyrical quality in the slightest. Likewise, I love me some slow contemplative folk, but it doesn’t really get me going the same way hip-hop does.
This idea is sound in theory, but Run The Jewels breaks that theory wide open.
The gangster rap duo, comprised of Killer Mike and El-P, played at SXSW, this weekend and it was one of the best shows I’ve ever seen, precisely because it combined the lyrics of smart, socially conscious protest music with gut-busting beats.
Killer Mike describes the group as gangster rap because the lyrics are meant to be blunt, honest and provocative to the point where many are offended. So when Killer Mike and El-P step onto stage to Queen’s “We are the Champions” and Mike screams, “We’re going to burn this club to the f--king ground,” he’s not speaking literally.
Most of the duo’s lyrics mean to be taken as such. No, Killer Mike does not actually want you to put a pistol on that poodle and shoot that bitch as he said directly to my face during Friday’s show at Cedar Street Courtyard in Austin, Texas, for the group’s final show of SXSW.
Those kinds of lines and the incredible beats that accompany it are precisely why Friday’s crowd almost broke the thin barrier that separated them from Run The Jewels. It was the kind of show you could just bounce in place and let the crowd move you all over the venue. I started two rows back and don’t even know where I ended up.
At one point, El-P put his arm around one of the security guards and thanked them for keeping the crowd and him safe, “but we’re about to make your jobs a lot harder.” That’s when the refrain “Run them jewels fast, run them, run them jewels fast,” blared over the speakers and the crowd reverberated back with wild thrashing that really threatened to break the barrier. The duo couldn’t even finish the song.
That energy is generally reserved for the most shallow of songs but “Close Your Eyes (And Count To F--k)” is anything but. It touches on religion, the prison industrial complex and U.S. policies of torture. But my favorite line has to be, “The only thing they close faster than our caskets be the factories.”
I couldn’t even hear that line live because people were about to tear down the stage.
They incorporated all that philosophy of socially and politically conscious lyrics seamlessly into the live performance. On the song “Lie Cheat Steal,” the crowd repeats every chorus “Lie, cheat, steal, kill, win, everybody doing it.” In the end, Run The Jewels slowed it down to a sluggish speed and cut out the beat as everyone repeated that line over and over. That same line, which just had me raging in a sweaty crowd, left me with a haunting message that was all too real.
“That’s our point,” Killer Mike said ending the song.
El-P even metaphorically explained the group’s logo and sign — a finger gun and a fist holding a gold chain — more than I had heard it explained before.
Before launching into “36" Chain” El-P talked about how the group saved up all its money before making it to the fame the members enjoy today. He said you have to do the same and go to the jewelry store, put all your money on the counter and buy the biggest, longest, glowing, gold invisible chain you can.
I could be wrong, but I choose to think he means you build up all the goodwill you can in life and cash it in for that thing you’re most proud of. Then you hold onto it with dear life and protect it.
If that’s the kind of metaphorical message I can pull out of a gangster rap song, then the barrier of fun and meaningful songs is completely broken. There is no barrier. The best songs can do both and no one can do it quite like Run The Jewels.
William Hoffman is a senior studying journalism at Ohio University and digital managing editor for The Post. Look out for more pieces reflecting on the music festival and conference SXSW throughout the week.