“Angel Duster”: RTJ’s Hope for the Living

It has become an expectation, a demand it seems, for mainstream hip-hop artists to rap about money, gold chains, hoes, and drugs. Exemplary titles that spring to mind include “Blowin Money Fast,” “Move that Dope,” and “Money, Cash, Hoes.” Maybachs and designer clothing are universal indicators of economic success and the lavish lifestyles that many rappers tend to highlight (and brag about) in their songs. And why shouldn’t they? — they’ve earned it. This attitude, of course, does not pertain to all hip-hop artists as many modern “conscious rappers” like Kendrick Lamar and, to an extent, Kanye West, aim toward vocalizing the plight of African-Americans by rapping about racial discrimination, police brutality, and the need for social change. Kanye West and, more recently, Chance the Rapper have also added a religious element to mainstream hip-hop, essentially creating a sub genre of “gospel rap.” Given this (admittedly brief) cross-section of current hip-hop music, some topics one would least expect to find in a rap song are Karl Marx and religious skepticism. However, it just so happens that “Angel Duster” by Run the Jewels is about both. The song, through a Marxist lens, exposes and condemns economic inequality and organized religion.

The hip-hop duo, Run the Jewels (RTJ), consists of Atlanta rapper, Killer Mike, and New York rapper/producer, El-P. The group formed in 2013 and has since released two LPs which both garnered critical acclaim for their stellar production and political influence. “Angel Duster” is the last track from their second record, Run the Jewels 2, and has relatively mellow production compared to other tracks on the album, like “Blockbuster Night Part 1,” that were specifically intended to be hardcore club bangers. While most of the album aggressively pulses, invoking rage and energy, “Angel Duster,” as the last song and the final utterance of their voice, turns down the fist-pumping factor and allows for the listener to focus more on the lyrics and the political messages they carry.

Nearly all of what RTJ churns out boasts overtly political lyrics about topics ranging from police brutality, to corruption, to economic injustice. Killer Mike has been an activist for social equality both in and out of his music career, endorsing Bernie Sanders, delivering speeches at rallies, and becoming his unofficial campaign adviser. He supports Bernie because “he’s the only politician who has consistently, for fifty years, taken [the] social justice platform into politics… [he] cares about poor people, cares about women, gay people and black rights.” Killer Mike also ran as a write-in candidate for the Georgia House of Representatives in 2015, espousing that political outsiders should strive to uproot the establishment.

I should be clear — neither Killer Mike nor El-P actually mentions Karl Marx specifically in the song, they just take a Marxist approach the the issues that they emphasize. Throughout the lyrics, RTJ constantly separates the “ones with the riches” from “the ones who the rags fit,” highlighting the two major Marxist economic classes: the wealthy, controlling bourgeoisie and the poor, oppressed proletariat. Marx argued that by exploiting and oppressing the proletariat, the bourgeoisie would maintain their power and increase their wealth. RTJ seeks to apply this in context with the current socioeconomic climate of the US; they assure and repeat in the chorus of “Angel Duster” that “We’re still here runnin’ round screaming/ They’re still here pointing and laughin.’” This line refers to the dangerous living conditions of the lower class which propel them further apart from the ruling bourgeoisie and extenuate the ever widening gap between the haves and the have-nots. RTJ equates the exploitation born from industrial society in the nineteenth century to current economic injustice in America, and condemns political leaders, whom El-P claims “love fear and division,” for promising justice and returning nothing but lies and more exploitation. Marx predicted that, inevitably, a capitalist world would erode all hope and happiness from the proletariat, who would then forcibly strike out and overthrow their rich and oppressive leaders in a global communistic revolution. “Angel Duster” does not go so far as to advocate for a revolt — instead, it focuses on reasons why all hope and happiness have not yet been squashed by economic injustice.

In the second half of the song’s hook, Killer Mike alludes to the need for drugs and artificial ailments to cope with the atrocious living conditions of impoverished communities:

Got kush for the pain

Cause the world is dangerous

Driven great men insane

Anchor themselves with angel dust

Angel dust is the synthetic dissociative drug, PCP, which RTJ claims anchors men from insanity. However, PCP is not nearly as common for stress relief or relaxation as marijuana, so the focus on angel dust, both in the song’s title and hook, implies a double entendre in the word “angel.” The song associates man’s reliance on drugs with man’s reliance on religion, as both are methods to “anchor” oneself and briefly divert attention from one’s dangerous and unjust economic circumstance. This connection is reminiscent of Marx’s own stance, in which he claims that “religion … is the opiate of the masses,” and simply a means of preventing the oppressed from rising up. It is important to note, however, that both Marx and RTJ condemn organized religion. Institutions of faith, like the Catholic Church for example, preach that our suffering must not be met with violent outbreak, but acceptance and morality, so that we may live a prosperous afterlife. RTJ and Karl Marx see this as a ruling class of Popes, Bishops, and their respective equivalents administering an illusionary happiness (much like the effects of opium) so as to prevent the proletariat from realizing that they’ve been unjustly oppressed, and maintain the hierarchical society which benefits the rich. Killer Mike expresses this belief in the fourth verse of “Angel Duster”:

A pope is a fraud

A church is a lie …

God really exists I tell you like this He reside inside

And anybody tellin’ you different, just selling you religion, tryin’ to keep your ass in line

It is beyond refreshing to see a break from the traditional bling boasting and ego flexing of mainstream hip-hop. RTJ’s “Angel Duster” is, at its core, a modern Marxist interpretation of class struggles and religion, and adds an entirely new element to “conscious rap.” It indicates a new breed of rapper — one who overcomes the oppression of capitalist society, and instead of perpetuating the system by showing off gold chains and Maybachs, this new breed criticizes the hierarchy it now rules, and acts in favor of the masses still oppressed.

Originally published at andoverpoliticalreview.com