I’m not going to say that rap has entered another golden age because that would be short-sighted, but the era of the internet looks as if it has finally reached up to its potential. New talented artists crawl out of the blogs every week, barriers dividing regions have crumbled, and artistic and creative energies are flowing everywhere. This can have negative effects. Local rap scenes are dying out to national trends, and the ease with which verses can be spent has led to diluted songs and shallow partnerships. But Run The Jewels, the duo of Killer Mike and El-P, shows how great this post-modern era of hip hop can be. Two veterans from two very different rap traditions thriving off of a symbiotic relationship that simply would not exist just five years ago. Killer Mike is an heir to the Dungeon Family, debuting on Outkast’s Stankonia and blazing through a unique career that has blended trap rap with political fury, drug dealing with gospel. El-P might as well be from another planet, being a member of legendary underground New York label Rawkus Records and then founding Def Jux. As a producer, he captured post 9/11 New York better than any musician on the planet. It’s dense and apocalyptic, seething with paranoia, dread, and pain. Both artists are anti-heroes in their own regions, throwing middle fingers up at anything and anyone. And now they’ve teamed up to steal all your jewelry.
This collaboration is a couple years deep now. El-P produced Killer Mike’s magnum opus R.A.P. Music from last year and the two have rapped together on that album’s “Butane (Champion’s Anthem)” and El-P’s “Tougher Colder Killer” from his very good album from last year Cancer 4 Cure. With Run The Jewels, the eponymous (FREE!!!) album from the duo, the MC connection is furthered. Run The Jewels is a great record in a way that’s markedly different from their previous offerings; it’s laid back and fun. Stripped of the heavy political content of their solo works, the only theme driving this album is old school sensibilities. The beats are more bare (but no less hard hitting) than El-P’s normal work and the rapping is all shit-talk. finding success in how these two rappers play off and one up the other. When Jay-Z and Kanye teamed up for Watch The Throne, one of the highlights of the album was how they actually sounded like a duo and made the tape cohesive, and that was a partnership that was decades in the making! El-P and Killer Mike have been working together for maybe a little under two years and they’ve found a chemistry that takes a lifetime to master. They trade off short verses, know when to let the other take the reins, finish each others sentences, and simply love working together . Their respect for each other is palpable throughout the record. On “Banana Clipper,” Mike states “producer gave me a beat, said it’s the beat of the year. I said El-P didn’t do it so get the fuck outta here!” And El-P in numerous interviews and tweets has said that he considers Killer Mike to be the greatest rapper alive. Now that’s a bit overboard but Mike goes it a little more credence on this record because he just goes OFF. He’s always been a great rapper, but let loose on just old school subjects like braggadocio and shit-talk, it’s incredible to see him work. “I feel my sanity slippin and I think I like the freedom, cannibal, animal, rappers I eat em! Even in Dubai I smoke like it’s legal, bitch so exotic she rode on a zebra”. The same goes for El-P, who isn’t as impressive as Killer Mike but still does a great job, focusing his off kilter, sky-is-coming-down speed raps into hard hitting threats. Run The Jewels is a brief thrill ride at just over a half hour, and leaves you wanting to put it on again as soon as it stops.
While Run The Jewels was a laid back exercise for the two veterans, there was nothing relaxed about their live shows. For two sold out back to back shows at San Francisco, Killer Mike and El-P transformed a packed house into church. The set went like this: Kool A.D. (1/2 of Das Racist) opened, and then Despot, El-P’s little sidekick friend, went next (and did a great job! Apparently he has an album coming out all produced by Ratatat and it sounded great. On my hannukah wish list). Then Killer Mike and El-P each did a solo set before performing together. They both know how to put on a show and the solo sets served to highlight their differences. Killer Mike is a huge dude, and watching him hulk and huff through his catalog was astonishing. He barks like an unhinged dog, seizing the moments when the beat drops to capture the entire crowd by himself. I could have watched the whole show acapella. In fact, he performed “Reagan” acapalla, rapping slow with the audience repeating his line. It was the greatest history class I’ve ever been a part of him and it was hard not to get chills when he had the whole audience foaming at the mouth, screaming “FUCK RONALD REAGAN.” Mike doesn’t shy away from these tricky areas. He reminded everyone about Oscar Grant, a sensitive issue only about a week after the George Zimmerman verdict, before launching into “Burn.” Mike has that ability to remind everyone of the cathartic power that rap specifically has. When he sat down and preached in the form of “God In The Building,” it was soul-baring. I don’t know of many rappers or artists who can do that.
El-P looks a little goofy compared to Mike. but still put on a great show. His backing band, a keyboardist and a guitarist, transformed his swirling dystopian soundscapes into rock anthems and I swore a mosh pit was going to break out. As cerebral as underground rap can feel, there’s a real size to El-P’s music, capable of handling synth noodlings and guitar solos. After his set was finished and he came back with Killer Mike, wearing large gold chains, I was amazed at how they were both still standing, dancing to the beat, high-fiving on cue, and giving it their all. But like Mike said, “I was thinking about taking it easy tonight, because the show last night went really late and I’m tired. And then my grandma’s voice popped in my head and said….Boy are you crazy!?!?” If only every performer had Killer Mike’s grandma.