When ‘nothing to lose’ a step up then everything’s for the win
So we grin in the face of frauds and tell monsters to suck our dicks
I live to spit on your grave, my existence is to disgrace you
The kitten became a lion that look at your face like great food
That’s why we got the people behind us
While other rappers are vaginas for the fame the jewels runners will always stay rude.
This Run The Jewels is murder, mayhem, melodic music.
– Killer Mike
Sometimes, StGA doesn’t get the chance to review new albums until after the major players have published their perspectives. This was particularly fretful with RTJ2. I am dying in limbo to read what’s been written elsewhere about this album, not because I need to know how much blogosphere acclaim the latest product of El-P and Killer Mike’s friendship has brought forth (likely, a metric fuck-ton), but because I want to know how much fun everyone else had with this album. I want to compare notes and hear what other people connected with, to discover new aspects of RTJ2 that I would never catch on my own. I want to know that there’s not a soul on Earth who couldn’t help but smile and say “holy shit” after their first listen.
We’ll see what the end of the year (or Q1 2015) brings from Kanye and Kendrick, but there is no single artist or group that presents themselves with as much of a lovable (and respectable) shit-eating grin as El-P and Killer Mike. Their playfulness is what sets Run The Jewels apart from all other contemporary hip hop artists and RTJ2 from all other contemporary hip hop albums. There’s an almost boyish energy in their aggression – like the kid who sat at the back of class and knew all the answers, but would rather make the teacher look like an idiot than help things run smoothly. They give us a healthy dose of foolishness, but they never slip into playing the jester. Most importantly, these two have never looked for a payout, have never put themselves in the position to kowtow to ensure career stability. They are largely self-made and have been through enough hardship to give up their eagerness for the spotlight, which only makes their increasing visibility more fulfilling.
It’s hard to resist drawing comparisons to Watch The Throne, but it’s definitely the easiest post-OutKast duo touchstone. The appeal of the 2011 summer jam compilation was rooted in what could theoretically spring forth when two friends who approach the same work from different perspectives combine forces. Listeners expected ‘Ye and Jay to not only heighten each other and find new ground between their styles, but to give us a taste of what kind of friendship these two giants must have. What resulted was a strong album (and most importantly, a springboard for Frank Ocean‘s 2012 debut studio joint), but the “meeting of the minds” opportunity was never fully realized or capitalized upon. Instead, we got a lot of strong Jay verses and strong ‘Ye verses that occupied the same beat, which didn’t really co-habitate so much as co-exist.
RTJ2 is different. From the first to last, this album is a celebration of Jaime and Mikey. This is very important to the formula at play here. Their friendship is not a product of having worked together – everything these two have created as a duo (starting with Killer Mike’s excellent R.A.P. Music) has been runoff from how well they get along on a human level. As Run The Jewels, they speak about the each other as much as they do themselves, bragging in plurals instead of singulars. Where it took Watch The Throne half an album to get to a real tennis match, RTJ2 hits it hard out the gate and doesn’t let go. Mike and El don’t just swap verses, they have full conversations about everything from the fucked up political landscape, to their experiences coming from two different sides of the racial divide toward the same common ground. Every song BUZZES with their energy and natural chemistry, making it impossible to not have fun while listening.
El-P is on point for every second of audio. He has always been at the top of the producer pile, but when the pressure’s on and the timeline’s short, he delivers in a big way. Cancer 4 Cure had bangers but the tracks had a tendency to meander a bit – this gave El time to show off all facets of his skill set, but it also slowed the album’s pace. RTJ has always worked on the fly and having group accountability seems to be focusing for El (“Tougher Colder Killer”, which features Mike, is one of the most memorable tracks on Cancer 4 Cure). Looking past his insanely nuanced and textured beats, the recipe of the album is just flawless – start with a banger, run through your first three singles (each one dovetailing into the next), and after you get Zach de la Rocha to break his legendary radio silence long enough to disparage “the slow-mo,” immediately go into the slowest jam on the album. Reset and realign the listener’s palette by throwing in an infectious track that brings in some classic ATL shit and then back-load your features into an all-out assault (featuring an insane roster from the Beyoncè mastermind Boots to Foxygen’s Diane Coffee) before unleashing a spacious finisher. AND HE’S GOING TO REMIX THE ALBUM EXCLUSIVELY WITH CAT’S MEOWS? SHUTITTHEFUCKDOWNGAMEOVER.
Killer Mike is unstoppable, becoming a stronger and smarter performer the closer he gets to the dreaded drop-off age of 40. He spits through the gamut and provides the lyrical direction to counterbalance El-P’s masterful handling of instrumentation. There’s an urgency to Mike’s flow that El doesn’t naturally possess and his verses pepper necessary heartbreak into RTJ2‘s high octane first act. “Lie, Cheat, Steal” is a Family Dungeon throwback that tears through the social/political food chain, featuring one of the album’s catchiest runs – “You really made it or just became a prisoner of privilege? / You willing to share that information that you’ve been given? / Like who really run this? / Like who really run that man that say he run this? / Like who who really run that man that say he run this, run run run run this? / Like who really fund this? / Like who really fund who say he fund this? / Like who in the world gon’ tell Donald Sterl who to put on the ‘you can’t come’ list?”
The album’s back half hits an incredible stride as El and Mike find the opportunity to broaden their strokes. “Early” features El’s strongest lines, as he sums up the national acceptance of (and apathy toward) police brutality against black citizens with “Heard it go pop, might have been two blocks / Heard a kid plus pops watched, cop make girl bleed / Go to home, go to sleep, up again, early”. It’s a powerful statement – El posits that it’s easier to accept these national tragedies when you have to struggle to ensure your own shit’s in order. “Love Again” is so fucking smooth and Gangsta Boo’s feature is one of the things I most look forward to when I spin RTJ2. “Crown” (an excellent companion piece to R.A.P. Music‘s “Willie Burke Sherwood”) finds Mike still wrestling with his guilt over having dealt drugs to the mothers of his community. The closer, “Angel Duster”, parallels the ending of Inception – after an unrelenting 39 minutes, the album suddenly comes to a halt. The release is both imposing and freeing.
All you can really say in the silence is “holy shit.”