The year 2014 was a bad one for iCloud users and anyone with a reason to have email correspondence with Sony. It was an even worse year for police officers and grand juries. But there always seemed to be someone willing to fight the losing battles, and perhaps not coincidentally, 2014 was a pretty good year for unexpected heroes.
Run the Jewels is the unlikely second act of old guys (in hip-hop years) Killer Mike and El-P, who seemed mostly interested in entertaining each other and anyone else who fell into their orbit with this project. But by some alchemy of geography and race and personality and experience and intelligence, they found some vein of truth. Killer Mike, in particular, can turn words into fists, and El-P has figured out how to make beats to match.
D’Angelo, meanwhile, is a career student of rhythm whose brilliance at interpreting the lessons he has learned from the likes of Prince and Sly and the Family Stone is matched only by his crippling self-consciousness. For most of the fifteen years between the release of his last album, Voodoo, and December’s surprising Black Messiah, he has existed almost exclusively in tabloid misadventures and Questlove’s tweets.
Killer Mike’s big break came by chance in 2000, when he found himself with OutKast at Stankonia Studios. The world first heard his solid brass bark on “Snappin’ & Trappin’,” on the album named for that Atlanta studio. After that he bounced around, guesting on tracks by other artists and releasing five unremarkable solo albums. By 2008 he found himself aimlessly chasing commercial success and (by his own admission) taking too many drugs and cheating on his wife. But by the time he released R.A.P. Music in 2012, he’d found new commitment to family and career, the latter rooted in deep skepticism of those with power and backed by the craftsmanship of a New York producer/rapper with a shit-eating grin, one Jaime Meline, a/k/a El-P.
That partnership having proved fruitful, the two soon formed Run the Jewels, bringing on Mike’s longtime DJ, St. Louis–based Trackstar, for the project. They put out a self-titled record in 2013 that sounded like an actual riot. But compared to 2014’s follow-up, it sounds downright timid.
No one in hip-hop is having more fun right now than Run the Jewels. To herald the new album, the duo released a video that was as self-aware as it was self-promoting: It amounted to several minutes of preamble before an announcement that they’d be adding the number “2” to the title of their previous release, Run the Jewels. Upping the ante, El-P got high and made a bunch of fake Kickstarters. One, “Meow the Jewels,” offered a re-recording of the new album featuring nothing but cat sounds, for $40,000. It says a great deal about what it takes to capture the public’s imagination in 2014 (and about the duo’s relevance) that a fan actually set up the campaign on Kickstarter. It says even more that it eventually raised $65,783. El-P and Killer Mike have pledged to follow through and donate the proceeds to the families of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. But Run the Jewels 2 is no novelty record. It is in fact one of the meanest records released last year, honest, urgent, and vulnerable, filled with sonic cacophony and promised violence.
D’Angelo’s Black Messiah appeared on the same number of Pazz & Jop ballots as Run the Jewels 2. But Black Messiah is your 2014 poll champion by a fairly wide margin, thanks to the enthusiasm it inspired in voters. The easy explanation for that fervor is the element of surprise: D’Angelo is a man who would be among the first artists voted into a theoretical r&b Hall of Fame based solely on the two albums he released before last year — 1995’s Brown Sugar and 2000’s Voodoo. For most of the past fifteen years, there was plenty of evidence that we’d never get anything else from the man born Michael Eugene Archer.
It’s not that he ever stopped being interested in music. Thanks to the occasional reports from Questlove (via interviews or his formidable Twitter account), the Roots drummer who played on Voodoo and has frequently been the sole optimist for future D’Angelo albums, we knew that the singer, producer, and all-around perfectionist was working on new material.
But juxtaposed with Questlove’s assurances of a sound unlike anything the world had ever heard before were reports of D’Angelo’s struggles with self-image and substance abuse, culminating in a 2010 arrest in Manhattan for asking an undercover female officer for a blowjob. In his mugshot, he couldn’t have been further from the immaculate sex icon featured in loving detail in the “Untitled (How Does It Feel)” video from a decade earlier. He had gained weight and appeared unkempt and weary.
Although D’Angelo has been silent since the release of Black Messiah, his collaborators (most notably engineers Russell Elevado and Ben Kane and, of course, Questlove) have spent the past two months illuminating the most rapturously received music in recent memory. Thanks to those close to the process, we know that the songs on the album were initially recorded between 2000 and 2010.
In that decade, D’Angelo became enamored of the guitar and rock ‘n’ roll. Clues about his musical mindset came from the shows he played in the months preceding the release of the new record, which were dominated by covers of the Beatles, Sly and the Family Stone, Funkadelic, Parliament, and Prince. There were shockingly few hints of D’Angelo’s own music in those shows — just a few highlights from his back catalog and one or two of the new ones. As it turns out, he was tinkering, dissatisfied with his own work, positive that he was equal to neither his reputation nor his heroes.
According to one of his managers, Kevin Liles, it was the grand jury’s decision not to indict Darren Wilson in the death of eighteen-year-old Michael Brown that inspired D’Angelo to finally release Black Messiah. In an interview with the New York Times, Liles described a phone call he got from the artist in the wake of the decision: “He said, ‘Do you believe this? Do you believe it?’ And then we just sat there in silence. That is when I knew he wanted to say something.”
Killer Mike was equally inspired by the news from Ferguson, Missouri. “We usually come on to Queen’s ‘Champion,’ ” he told the audience during a pre-show speech in St. Louis the night of the Michael Brown grand jury decision. “And I just gotta tell you today, that man, no matter how much we do it, no matter how much we get shit together, shit comes along that kicks you on your ass and you don’t feel like a champion. So tonight, I got kicked on my ass when I listened to that prosecutor. And I’m gonna tell ’em: You motherfuckers got me today.”
Even in the worst moments, even when justice seems unattainable and the system designed to protect our society seems like a perverse joke, some voices rise. D’Angelo’s voice rose last year. And Killer Mike’s voice rose, too.
2015 Pazz + Jop Essays Index
• A First-Rate Year for Second Acts
• Black Lives Matter
• The Comfort in Being Sad
• Pop’s Not-So-Secret Weapon
• Pazz + Jop 2014: The Critics’ Best Comments
• Tabulation Notes by Pazz + Jop Ballot Master Glenn McDonald
More:Pazz & Jop