By Peter Thomas Ricci
In his acclaimed book Democracy Matters, professor and activist Cornel West offered a passionate defense of the democratic importance of hip hop, and how the art form was, from its beginning, a check on the political system.
“Its originating impulse was a fierce disgust with the hypocrisies of adult culture – disgust with the selfishness, capitalist callousness, and xenophobia of the culture of adults,” West wrote. “The political giants of hip hop all expressed and continue to express … righteous indignation at the dogmas and nihilism of imperial America.”
In his analysis, West cited artists from hip hop’s Golden Age – KRS-ONE, Public Enemy, and most recently, Outkast – but the fundamentals he wrote about in 2005 were on urgent display Friday night at the Aragon, where Run the Jewels delivered a barn-burning concert that captured the very essence of hip hop.
Those qualities were apparent from the show’s opening seconds. Entering the stage unpretentiously and wearing modest black garb, the hip hop duo (composed of producer/rapper El-P and MC extraordinaire Killer Mike), immediately launched into “Talk to Me,” the first single off their new album ‘RTJ3.’ Rhyming with remarkable dexterity and fluidity, Mike rapped, “On the radio, heard a plane hijack / Government did that like they cooked crack / I move in a world of conspiracies / Obey no rules, I’m doing me,” to which El-P responded in his verse, “Brave men didn’t die face down in the Vietnam muck so I could not style on you.”
And that only served as the appetizer. For the ensuing 70 minutes, Run the Jewels tore through its material with an intensity and focus that bordered on frightening, their rhymes complemented by airtight beats (which, thankfully, were mixed low enough so as not to overwhelm the voices) and some truly spectacular lighting – although lighting displays are expected at concerts, Run the Jewels took things a step further, using lighting as a subtle metaphor during their songs; for instance, amidst the lyrical assault of “Don’t Get Captured,” in which El-P rhymes “Is that blunt? / Oh well, hell, so’s this boot / We Live to hear you say ‘please don’t shoot’ / A pure delight, c’mon make my night / When I file reports what’s right’s what I write,” the lights behind the artists shined in the sharp blue and red of a police car, a metaphor that captured the “righteous indignation” of West’s writing as purely as anything I’ve ever seen at a hip hop show.
As performers, Killer Mike and El-P are beyond reproach. Committed to their craft and remarkably respectful of their fanbase – multiple times, they thanked the more than 5,000 people in the audience for their attendance, and even urged the men to give female fans adequate space – it’s a unique pleasure watching the two performers maneuver the stage, trade rhymes, and follow each other’s cues. The very best live performances are the ones that offer freedom within form, and in this tour to support their third album, Run the Jewels have perfected that dynamic.
I was also impressed, to a considerable degree, by El-P’s rhyming and stage presence. Although I have long respected his producing chops (from “Cold Vein” to “RTJ3,” his sound is immediately recognizable), I always felt that on record, El-P’s MCing suffered by comparison to Killer Mike, who is as virtuosic as any rapper to ever pick up a microphone; in concert, though, El-P was every bit Mike’s equal, effortlessly holding the rhythms down and driving the music forward.
Finally, there was a moment during Run the Jewels’ encore that encapsulated everything that makes the group so special. In an emotionally charged address to the audience, Killer Mike appealed to the audience to look around, acknowledge the differences and stories of the people around them, and unite behind a common cause. Growing up, Mike said, he had a decidedly different perspective, but it was the guidance of his mentor/teacher Alice Mary Johnson who gave him a new view of the world. “That is why,” he said, choking back tears, “I am up here on this stage with my best friend, El-P.” And that was something the whole audience could get behind.
For more info on Run the Jewels, click here.
For photos from the Aragon performance, click here.
Setlist for Run the Jewels at the Aragon Ballroom, 2.18.17
1. Talk to Me
2. Legend Has It
3. Call Ticketron
4. Blockbuster Night, Part 1
5. Oh My Darling Don’t Cry
6. Nobody Speak
7. Hey Kids (Bumaye)
8. Panther Like a Panther
9. Stay Gold
10. Don’t Get Captured
11. Everybody Stay Calm
12. Love Again (with Gangsta Boo)
13. Lie, Cheat, Steal
15. A Report to the Shareholders
16. Run the Jewels
17. Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck)