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What I've Been Listening to: July 2020

Everything just comes together so well on RTJ4 by Run the Jewels.

I've been a Run the Jewels fan for quite a few years now. First, Killer Mike and EL-P are exceptional musicians. It's been true of the other Run the Jewels albums and of each's solo work. That said, I feel like RTJ is more than the sum of its parts. The rappers complement and play off one another to reach a higher level. One gets the impression that the two rappers are truly and deeply friends, as interested in supporting one another as they are in taking the spotlight, and that comradery comes off as unique, refreshing, and uplifting.

Second, the beats are fantastic. Each track grabs your attention and makes you want to bob your head, but each has a distinct sound. This is another type of musicianship, but I see it as distinct from the vocal performance. For some tracks, this probably means they reached out to other collaborators to bring new or refine sounds, but to me, this means Killer Mike and EL-P picked the right collaborators and put in clear effort to make every track pop.

Speaking of collaborators, RTJ4 calls on a handful of heavy hitters who dip in to compliment the duo perfectly. Sometimes it seems like groups, hip-hop groups, in particular, rely too heavily on guest appearances and featured artists. On this album, you'll see names like Pharrell Williams, Zach de la Rocha, and DJ Premier, and while their contributions are distinct, to my ears, they're low key. In some cases providing a back-ground hook or beat. In others, providing reinforcing the lyrics, but only after Killer Mike and EL-P have developed a song. In short, you never hear the guest upstage the artist, but rather lift them up, and it's wonderful.

One couldn't talk about RTJ without mentioning their social and political relevance. You won't hear bragging about how dangerous or cool they are as a lot of rappers lean on. Instead, RTJ 4, as with previous albums, Killer Mike and EL-P seem to want to look at society. This album speaks to racial issues, speaks to the power struggle between people and authorities, and speaks to poverty and income inequality. It really couldn't be more politically or socially topical.

That said, what really sets RTJ apart, is that with all their earnest and serious topics and feelings, they are masterfully humorous. It is a fine line to walk when coupling social problems and trying to be funny, think Dave Chappel, etc. But RTJ does just that. On the one hand, they ask you to "look at all these slave masters posin' on yo' dollar," on the other, they have a tough deep-voiced refrain chanting a very silly "ooh la la, ah, oui oui."

For RTJ, these are serious matters and serious times, but they can't help but be goof-balls, and boy, it makes it easier to swallow.


What I've Been Listening to: June 2020

I enjoy some hip-hop music, but I'm far from having my thumb on the pulse of the genre. I wasn't aware of Mac Miller until the news of his untimely death hit the headlines in 2018.  Still, I didn't encounter much of his music, at least that I knew of, and didn't go seek it out. But there I was taking an extra lap around the neighborhood in my car, with the SXM coffeehouse radio station on, hoping my crazy, soon-to-be three-year-old might go ahead and doze off when "Good News" came on. If you're not familiar, that music station is mostly singer-songwriter, acoustic sort of chill music. Perfect for reading and sipping coffee by, and not where you'd expect to find chart-topping hip-hop musicians.

"Good News" is a single of Miller's 2020 album, Circles, which was released posthumously. Apparently, a work in progress that the musician's family oversaw to completion with some notable collaborators. The sound is mellow but and often soulful, and I suspect that is what attracted me. It has an air of exhaustion to it that given Miller's death seem prophetic. But, it's hard to say how much that is due to others' work after his passing. It certainly seems a more mature, life-warn piece. It's well worth a listen.
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