From R.A.P. Music to Run the Jewels: Killer Mike and the Homonymity of the Idea

What follows is a first pass attempt to bring together the themes of sovereignty I have been exploring alongside Stephen Keating this semester with contemporary hip hop.


What could be an anonymous homonymy that moves towards the name itself? A herald from Atlanta carries the answer.

In The Coming Community XVII, Agamben utilizes Bertrand Russell’s famous 1902 letter to Frege to gloss on the place of whatever being. Here we learn that whatever being is able to hold before itself its own being-in-language, and via a theory of ideas, disentangle thought from the aporias of linguistic being identified by Russell (in brief, what Russell shows is that within set theory, the non-predicative property of something’s “being-called”, i.e. the existence of a thing within language, is impossible to distinguish from the thing).

This understanding of homonymity is central to the conception of whatever being, and as we shortly find out, the ability of whatever being to co-exist in common is what makes it a principle enemy of the State. In this post I want to briefly suggest that the theory of ideas Agamben speaks of in this chapter can be illustrated through the work of Killer Mike and Run the Jewels. Killer Mike’s abrasive, antagonistic, and angry style of social commentary evidenced in the video I posted above is helpful for considering what I think can be called the militant character of state resistance that logically follows from The Coming Community, but can sometimes be lost in the contemplative and aphoristic style of the work.

How does Killer Mike help articulate the antagonism between whatever being and contemporary politics? I think the answer can be found in the idea of Run the Jewels, which is the name of Killer’s Mike’s 2013-present collaboration with El-P. In order to contextualize this statement, a bit of background is helpful. As evidenced in the video above, Killer Mike has a direct and aggressive flow; he started out as part of Outkast’s crew, and has steadily made a name for himself in underground hip hop as a purveyor of straightforward, southern-style rap (I might be equivocating between hip hop and rap here, but I’m trying to follow KRS One’s distinction that says that hip hop is something lived, whereas rap is something done). His style is continued and perhaps perfected on the 2012 album R.A.P. Music, which is significantly produced by El-P. On this album, Killer Mike moves deftly between genres, such as the militant song with which I started this post, or the even more politically motivated Reagan, but at the same time is able to communicate personal and/or passionate feelings as well, with neither sounding problematic or like one doesn’t belong on the album in lieu of more of the other. Here the quintessential song is the one that gives the album its name, which concludes the album and serves as a bridge to Run the Jewels:

Enter Run the Jewels, which for the sake of brevity, I will define as the weaponization of love in the community of whatever being against the State. In defining it this way, I am aware of the danger of reducing a complex work of art to make a point clearly external to it, but I don’t mean this theoretical elaboration as a translation of Killer Mike/Run the Jewels into Agambenese. Instead, what I think becomes clear in the conceptualization of Run the Jewels itself is precisely what Agamben is trying to gesture towards in the homonymity of the idea of whatever being. Run the Jewels is a stick-up saying that, obviously, communicates that whoever is being robbed needs to give up his or her jewelry. This understanding of the phrase is communicated throughout the album, often in zany and yet somehow still braggadocio scenarios, such as when Killer Mike raps about “putting a pistol on a poodle” in the title track.

However, Killer Mike and El-P, as Run the Jewels, conduct a conceptualization of what Run the Jewels means as well, and it’s a conceptualization that brings together the contrasting elements from Killer Mike’s R.A.P. Music in a perfect harmony. Let me explicitly state here that I am not suggesting that El-P’s production or collaboration somehow completes Killer Mike’s work, which would be a kind of racist white savior reading of what’s going on. I think the same type of analysis could be done from another angle, viewing El-P’s progression into Run the Jewels, but I’m more familiar with Killer Mike’s solo work, and so I’ve chosen it. The important thing for me here is that Run the Jewels comes to be a communally joyful expression of militant resistance to the status quo.

This can be seen in two movements, first in the song “Get It,” and second in the final track, “A Christmas Fucking Miracle.” Towards the end of “Get It,” both emcees set out blunt statements about who they are:

[Verse 3: El-P]
My name is Jamie Meline
I’m not chasing the green, I’m taking it
Bosses don’t change a thing in the name of seemingly making it
Servants’ll kiss the ring of whoever they think is paying ’em
You don’t deserve the spit that they hurdled up in your face and shit

[Verse 4: Killer Mike]
My name is Michael Render
And we are the new Avengers
We’re here to tell you that all your false idols are just pretenders
They’re corporation slaves indentured to all the lenders
So even if you got seven figures, you still a n****

This song radicalizes the opposition to most contemporary rap music that seethes through the album. It not only declares war on unnamed other figures in mainstream music, but it does so for the sake of resisting the contemporary powers that be. It is in this sense that we should understand Killer Mike’s proclamation that Run the Jewels are the new Avengers. More than the all-out assault on other rappers that pervades the album, this declaration boldly takes the mantle of truth and justice upon Run the Jewels, as those fans of the Marvel Comic will know.

In what sense are Run the Jewels the defenders of truth and justice? Quite simply, to the extent that they are successful in politicizing and militarizing a negation of the ruling powers in favor of the construction of an alternative community. Killer Mike makes the former most clear with the following line on “Twin Hype”: “I’m no respecter of person, I’m no respecter of rules / I catch the Prince of England slipping, he goin’ to run me the jewels.” The sense in which the two are successfully brought together is most clear on the final track, whose expression I will leave to Killer Mike and El-P:

Towards the conclusion of his chapter on homonyms, Agamben writes, “while the network of concepts continually introduces synonymous relations, the idea is that which intervenes every time to shatter the pretense of absoluteness in these relations, showing their inconsistency.” (76) If Killer Mike’s R.A.P. Music introduces a set of synonyms, on Run the Jewels self-titled album, these synonyms become homonymous with respect to the idea Run the Jewels. At the outset of The Coming Community, Agamben also tells us of the importance of love for the coming politics: “the movement that Plato describes as erotic anamnesis is the movement that transports the object not toward another thing or another place, but towards its own taking-place–toward the Idea.” (2) Run the Jewels, insofar as it successfully brings together a militant refusal to give in or bow a knee to the powers that be with a weaponization of love for the creation of alternative community, is such an Idea, and perhaps, an exemplar of the coming community.

One thought on “From R.A.P. Music to Run the Jewels: Killer Mike and the Homonymity of the Idea

  1. These are cool connections. Certainly El-P’s pre-collaboration-w/KM-work shares themes (e.g., justice) that are present in the collaborations. There’s the nitty gritty in El-P’s stuff with Company Flow, but his more political commentary emerges strongly in I’ll Sleep When Your Dead. Every time I hear someone mention (the war crimes being committed in) Guantanamo Bay, I visualize the Smithereens video. (And also on ISWYD: Tasmanian Pain coaster is absolutely sick.)

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