Run the Jewels – 4
This whole album was written before the death of George Floyd and the rebellion that began soon after, but since Killer Mike and El-P are well versed in the matters of racial injustice and civil disobedience, this album seems right in step with the current climate. Enough so, that they even dropped it a few days early in light of what’s happening in the world. They couldn’t wait, and neither could RTJ fans.
After Killer Mike’s emotional speech in Atlanta after the first week of riots, it was clear he was struggling with the right words. On this album, he’s full of them – poignant, cutting, and clear: “We don’t mean no harm/ But we truly mean all the disrespect” he says on yankee and the brave (ep. 4), which kicks the album off with some serious fury.
No one is safe from criticism here, but the news or info-tainment industry is especially in the cross-hairs: “You’ve been hypnotized and twitter-ized by silly guys/ Cues to the evening news makes you ill advised” Mike says on goonies vs. E.T. and continues the sentiment on walking in the snow “Every day on the evening news, they feed your fear for free / And you so numb you watch the cops choke out a man like me / And till my voice goes from a shriek to whisper ‘I can’t breathe’.”
And no, Killer Mike is not a clairvoyant – the Floyd death was not the first time that “I can’t breathe” was uttered by a black man. He is referring to Eric Garner. The aim of the Black Lives Matter movement is that Floyd’s was the last.
Fiona Apple – Fetch the Bolt Cutters
2020 will be known as the year Fiona Apple put out her masterpiece. I can’t see another album coming out this year that will be better than this one – it’s carefully crafted, intense, fun, and rewarding. The words are poetic anthems to many of our current societal woes. She calls out misogyny, bullies, and toxic masculinity and often weaves pages from her memoire with pages from philosophical treatises.
She moves deftly from the offensive to defensive though, often coming off as vulnerable and humble, no more than on her opening track: “And I know that none of this will matter in the long run/ But a sound is still a sound around no one/ And while I’m in this body / I want somebody to want / And I want what I want / And I want you.”
The structure of the tunes keeps the album fresh from start to finish, sometimes even layering in sounds from around her house including all three of her dogs. This is more than an album, it’s a work of art. She’s put a lot of herself into this – it’s part memoire, part social commentary, part philosophy.
“Kick me under the table all you want / I won’t shut up” she declares on Under the Table. Yes, we’re all richer for Apple not shutting up no matter how many times she’s been bullied, blacklisted, and shushed. She’s an inspiration for those who also need to go fetch those bolt cutters.
Steve Earle and the Dukes – The Ghosts of West Virginia
If you like Steve Earle’s 1999 album The Mountain, you’re going to appreciate this one as well. He continues the sentiment, better yet the angst, that shows up on that Grammy-nominated bluegrass album, and has crafted a new bunch of songs around the paradoxical relationship of a region to its mine. Specifically, this album reflects the brutal 2010 West Virginia mining explosion that killed 29 people, and is less paradoxical than it is lamenting. Earle has never made his politics a secret and has signalled this album is for all the blue collar workers who didn’t vote for Trump.
He mixes bluegrass, country, and blues on this collection that began when he was invited to write the soundtrack the production of Coal Country. The Devil Put the Coal in the Ground is a stomper that can easily use its swagger as subterfuge for its message. Union, God and Country is catchy bluegrass reflection on life in West Virginia. He doesn’t hide his anger on this album, especially when he chillingly lists all 29 coal-miners’ names on It’s About Blood, right after he declares: “God damn right I’m emotional / I ain’t nothing but a man / Hell yes, this is personal / Before we leave here, you’re gonna understand”
This album proves that the 65 year old Earle has still got lots of music left in him. He’s got lots of piss n vinegar too. Thank god. We need his voice more than ever.
Written by Jesse Wilkinson