The other week, I was having a conversation with a friend of mine who is a new father – we’ll call him Cronus – and we were talking about parental instinct. He lowered his voice conspiratorially, considered the infant in his lap and said, “Sometimes I love my baby so much that I want to eat him. Is that normal?”
Turns out, it’s not just normal–it’s science! Olfactory chemical signals–the smells of newborn babies have been linked to dopamine spikes in the brains of new mothers, essentially triggering the same neurological reward circuit activated when a very hungry person eats, or when a heroin addict shoots up. (Men weren’t tested in this study, but if my friend’s admission is any indication, both sexes get the startling urge to eat their offspring.) The desire to eat a baby, or an animal, just because it’s so freaking adorable is called “cute aggression,” or, less scientifically, the om-nom-nom impulse, and it belongs within that category of incongruous human reactions that also includes nervous laughter and happy tears. Unlike those examples, there’s an obvious undercurrent of violence to the baby-eating instinct more in line with the Greek mythological variety. There is, after all, no biological advantage to being so overwhelmed by your puppy’s cuteness that you want to bite its face off. But love is a mysterious thing.
Is this sensation specific to parental love, or could it extend to the romantic as well? With a lover, the om-nom-nom impulse may be more complex. You can view your partner as cute, potentially even cute enough to eat, but there’s another desire at play–to take him or her entirely into yourself, to break through the boundaries of skin. Like the archetypical couples who yearn for their long-lost other halves in the Symposium’s “Origin of Love” myth (yep – again with the Greeks), to use your bodies to meld parted souls back together. You guessed it– now we’re talking about sex!
Respectfully submitted: “Love Again” by hip-hop duo Run The Jewels is one of the greatest love songs to explore the “cute aggression” line between romantic partner, to navigate the intersection of sex and violence, and to postulate that that intersection may in fact be the purest form of love. Okay, just hear me out.
In some ways El-P and Killer Mike, the two members of Run The Jewels, bear resemblance to that Greek origin story about two halves floating through their respective lifetimes ever yearning for the other. Both men were nearly 40 when they started making music together, as each headed toward the presumed tail end of moderately successful rap careers. Killer Mike was an entrepreneur who’d just opened a barbershop with his wife in Atlanta after a roller coaster career in the early 2000s, when he’d signed to Outkast’s Purple Ribbon imprint just before André 3000 left the group.
El-P, a Brooklyn rapper who’d seen success in the alternative hip hop scene with his group Company Flow, had meanwhile already built and dissolved his record label Definitive Jux. Both men had lived full lives in music, entertained partnerships, formed bonds and broken them. But when Killer Mike and El-P released their eponymous debut record under the name Run The Jewels in 2013, it sounded like they’d been waiting to work together their entire lives: their collaborative writing like a shaken-up bottle of soda.
The pair does violence elegantly. Their first album essentially catalogued myriad ways to be creatively cruel, from the opening track’s imagery of holding a gun to the jaw of a rich lady’s pet poodle and–complete with howling sound effect–pulling the trigger; to the final track, “A Christmas Fucking Miracle,” with Killer Mike’s verse, which partially reads: “I pummel punch a pumpkin head punk in his pimple face til he’s punch drunk ‘cause he’s sweet as a pound cake, -Ain’t he pussy, Mike? Yeah, El, I’ll say.” It’s theme and variation: they use aggression to establish their power, and then riff on it.
On their second record, unimaginatively titled Run The Jewels 2, El P and Killer Mike included the memorable “Love Again,” a song that initially seems contradictory to their M.O. It’s a love song, sleazy and pornographic. The song is a tussle of male and female voices, (courtesy of the inimitable Gangsta Boo) both fixated on the desire to exert swagger, and wax graphic on the experience of receiving oral sex. The song sees sexual prowess as a metaphor for power and arrogance, and from a male perspective, that’s nothing new. But in “Love Again,” the act of performing oral sex on a lover means discovering another person of equal greatness. The song relationship accepts the element of violence because it’s an exactly equal partnership, a giving that’s equalled by the capacity to take, and vice versa.
But the best part of this song is that it’s a bait and switch. What begins with swagger (some dude bragging about a conquest) turns to sap (years later, still as into his wife as he was the first time they hooked up) and then, Gangsta Boo comes in at the end with a surprise verse, suddenly taking the song for a turn to the…sex-positive? She raps about turning boys into men, demanding her lover kiss her feet and pay her bills, and yes, give her lots and lots of oral sex. It’s extremely dirty, it’s hilariously dirty, perhaps hilarious in the “inappropriate-reaction-nervous-laughter” way, but even so, it’s impossible to avoid the fact that the song, ultimately, presents a shared-power, respectful relationship.
“The world won’t let you be yourself, I won’t accept nothing else / You be takin’ all of this, pleasure come from punishment, your threshhold astonishin’/ I think I’m in love again,” raps Killer Mike in an earlier verse. His voice rings the very truest, because when he performs “Love Again” live, he dedicates it to his wife. It’s a song that’s so much about sex that it’s no longer about sex, instead about a person who is an extension of one’s self–someone who brings out ideas you didn’t know you had, adds bodily space to your body, who is a frontier you build outward from yourself… and then conquer. The “you” in this song is devourable for more than hypnotic cuteness: it’s the ideal of an equal “edible” partner.
Natural impulse aside, just don’t actually eat that baby. It isn’t what Killer Mike would want you to do.
Love Tracks Series