The Albums That Defined 2014 explores how this year's most influential records have shaped and reflected the wider music landscape. In this final installment: Run The Jewels, D'Angelo, Lauryn Hill, J. Cole and more prove protest songs never went extinct. In fact, we need them more than ever.
It's been a disquieting few months for anyone watching the news out of America. On November 24, a grand jury decided it wouldn't indict officer Darren Wilson for the fatal shooting of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown. Then, just over a week after, a Staten Island jury similarly sided with officer Daniel Pantaleo in the chokehold death of Eric Garner. If the country wasn't already boiling, these punctuated a dizzying succession of other police shootings victimizing young black males: John Crawford III, Akai Gurley, Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old who was waving around a toy gun on a Cleveland playground. There have been protests, die-ins, riots, grand displays of police militarization, and then — intuitively, inevitably even, but certainly not rightfully — retaliation murders. Something big is happening, you can feel it.
Like "Strange Fruit" decried early-century lynchings, Woody Guthrie's "Union Burying Ground" celebrated the '40s pro-labour movement, or the Dead Kennedys' Frankenchrist derided Reaganomics, Run the Jewels' RTJ2 is our snapshot of America in the era of #BlackLivesMatter.
Rap, like punk rock, is a vehicle that's made for dissent, though maybe each has suffered from a predilection for partying for about the past decade (a fact not lost on Killer Mike). Bubbling just beneath the radio waves, Mike and El-P have been making political, socially-engaged hip-hop for nearly two decades apiece, but it's here that they've served up their magnum opus — a breathless 11-track collection of timely dissidence.
On "Early," Mike imagines watching his wife's murder at the hands of a cop. It's a contemporary redux of "Fuck tha Police" that sidesteps the gangster pose — he begins, in fact, by admitting "I respect the badge and the gun" — for an examination of police brutality, institutional racism, and the everyday fears that those engender. And this comes, I remind you, from Killer Mike, the real-life son of a former Atlanta police officer.
But passivity and observation don't characterize the album elsewhere: "Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck)" is a rebel song in the plainest sense (Zach de la Rocha even steps on), wherein Killer Mike and El-P encourage wide-scale revolt — in the prisons, the factories, and on the streets. It's not the first time on RTJ2 where their rhetoric, especially regarding the place of violence in protest, is more Malcolm X than MLK Jr. (alluded to more directly on "Jeopardy") but the incendiary language is likely more art, less instruction. They do, however, think you should be expressing your discontents: "a riot is just the language of the unheard," Mike quoted King in a tearful pre-show speech that went viral.
To be certain, the deaths of Micheal Brown and Eric Garner were flashpoints for many musicians. Q-Tip led chants at a rally in New York, Lauryn Hill dedicated "Black Rage" to Ferguson, D'Angelo rushed the release of Black Messiah on the heels of the controversial grand jury decisions, Dev Hynes scored a documentary on the NYC protests, The Game assembled an impossibly large posse cut in tribute to Brown, and J. Cole delivered his heartbreaking, plaintive "Be Free."
Whereas many of last year's most memorable releases marked aesthetic achievements (Random Access Memories, Modern Vampires of the City, Yeezus), music is enjoying an especially discursive moment in 2014 — it wants to talk about the world around it. A Tribe Called Red reminded us of the problems underlying the observance of Thanksgiving, Against Me! wrote about gender dysphoria, and Pussy Riot continued its exposé of Russian civil rights. Storytelling, grass-roots activism, and an attention to marginalized voices have landed in the forefront.
To say hip-hop is dead or punk is dead just seems out of touch. They both just had their biggest year in a long time.