Hungry Hippopotamus Best Albums Of 2014: #3 – Run The Jewels

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Almost at the finish line. Check out the previous albums in these  three  posts.

“Run The Jewels is the answer to the question of what’s popping!” So states El-P, one half of the most charming and unlikely success stories of the decade. Two hall of fame solo artists, Dungeon Family B-lister Killer Mike and New York underground stalwart El-P, link together and create the best music of their careers, uniting young and old, north and south, and black and white in the process. I’ve told this story before because they’ve been on these lists before: their first team up, Killer Mike’s (El-P produced) R.A.P. Music was one of the best albums of 2012 and their original Run The Jewels landed on the 2013 list. But those last two albums seem like experiments compared to this. Whereas R.A.P. Music was an aesthetic partnership that marveled at the difference of sounds and styles being combined and the RTJ debut was a low stakes shit-talk record, Run The Jewels 2 finds the partnership fully complete. Their chemistry is organic, their personalities complement each other, and they’ve brought the fire that made them so special as solo artists and made some new and inspiring.

“I’M BOUT TO BANG THIS BITCH THE FUCK OUT” Killer Mike bellows on opening track “Jeopardy” and what follows is 11 songs of revolutionary wildfire, burning down corrupt police, capitalist pigs, misogynistic hypocrites, the military industrial complex, and whatever helpless fuck boys get in the way. Killer Mike says it best:

“Me and El-P got time to kill, got folks to kill on overkill. He hangin’ out the window, I hold the wheel, one black, one white, we shoot to kill
That fuckboy life about to be repealed, that fuckboy shit about to be repelled, fuckboy Jihad, kill infidels, Allahu Akbar, BOOM from Mike and El.”

On their previous album, Killer Mike was the star of the show, contending for a spot on the All Rap team. He’s phenomenal here, tip toeing on the track like a ballerina, and then bludgeoning everything in his path. But this time El-P goes bar for bar with Mike, rapping better than I’ve ever heard him. He plays the sneer to Mike’s roar, tossing up such devastating insults that you have to pause the tape to fully internalize them (“You can all run backward through a field of dicks” or “I’d fall back if your casting calls are ending in semen”). His double time sneaks in and out of the beat, linking verses together and keeping pace with the gleeful mania of the record. Nothing is as fun as listening to the two of them tag team a song, trading bars back and forth.

What’s different about this record though is that it’s not just Mike and El. After signing to Mass Appeal, Run The Jewels expanded in scope and the guest artists up the ante. Zach De La Rocha (formerly of Rage Against The Machine) delivers an absolutely blistering verse on “Close Your Eyes (And Count To Fuck),” shouting out Miles Davis and Phillip K. Dick in the same breath and predicting mass factory closures. Beyonce collaborator BOOTS adds a drip of pathos on “Early.” But Gangsta Boo might just steal the show on “Love Again (Akinyele Back),” delivering a filthy, man-eating verse that flips the script on decades of rap sexual norms.

The production has grown as well. El-P’s work on the first RTJ stripped his dissonant industrial sound to the bare essentials, playing like a reworking of Rick Rubin’s rock rap. He’s built that sound into something new here, and there’s really nothing else right now that sounds like it. Listen to “Oh My Darling Don’t Cry,” the way he incorporates Police Academy’s Michael Winslow vocal noises to create the schizophrenic atmosphere. Or the sledgehammer riffs on “Blockbuster Night Part 1” that could accompany a Mad Max chase scene. Or the chanting breakdowns in “All Due Respect.” Or the ghostly guitar that drifts in and out of “Crown.” El-Producto earns his moniker here, proving he can reinvent his sound fifteen years after his debut.

All of this would be enough to make Run The Jewel 2 a major album. What makes it so special, and so universal, is how it became the major hip hop response to the civil unrest in the country. Killer Mike became a pundit after this, appearing on CNN and Bill Maher, but his views are clear on the album. There’s the fury of the riots (“we killin them for freedom cuz they tortured us for boredom, and even if some good ones die, fuck it, the lord’ll sort them”), the pain of injustice (“I pray today ain’t the day that you drag me away right in front of my beautiful son”), and the guilt of survival (“Give me the fame and I promise to change, won’t be the same, won’t be the same type of man who puts cocaine in this lady’s hands”). No other rapper is delivering such nuanced commentary. El-P is right there with him, letting Mike speak his mind while stretching the issues into universal problems. Someone tell Macklemore that this is how you deal with social injustice without looking like some kind of white messiah. Run The Jewels takes the anti-fuckboy creed on their first album and utilizes it for something positive. It was the album America needed.

I saw Run The Jewels live a couple summers ago in San Francisco. It was a fantastic show. As fun as it was, the most powerful part was when Killer Mike dedicated a song to Oscar Grant, the kid who was murdered by BART police in Oakland. It was maybe the most powerful concert experience I’ve ever witnessed. A year later Run The Jewels had a concert in St. Louis right after officer Darren Wilson was acquitted for murdering Mike Brown. Once again Killer Mike took the stage and spoke for the grief and rage of the people. It was touching and it was moving and it was more grounded and emotional than anything else about it. It was a reminder of how important hip hop can be. And it’s proof that these two rappers earned every second of their latter day fortune.

Hungry Hippopotamus Best Albums of 2014: #4 – Rich Gang

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Reacquaint yourself with the list here and here.

Atlanta is one of the most creative and chaotic places in rap, offering up new stars and seeing them fizzle out in the time span it takes a major label to make a decision. It has the greatest rap infrastructure in the country, but in 2014 it yielded more hot singles than lasting projects. Enter Birdman, CEO of Cash Money Records, always on the hunt for new talent, taking two of ATL’s hottest new rappers under his wing and putting them in his own collective, Rich Gang. It was a match made in heaven. Tha Tour Part 1 is a showcase for the chemistry between Young Thug and Rich Homie Quan, their natural pop instincts highlighted by the opulent sparkle of breakout producer London On Da Track, and their shrill ebullience given gravitas by Birdman’s (absolutely essential) shit talk peppered all over the record. The tape was supposed to just be a preview; an advertisement for greater things to come. But Tha Tour Part 1 exceeded expectations and ended up as the best mixtape of the year.

Young Thug spent 2014 as a rap supernova, stopping time and bending gravity with every verse. But he always did his best work with partners who either provided a strong base to bounce off of (see T.I. or Trae The Truth), or ones who could keep up the energy and let Thug stay in the stratosphere (see PeeWee Longway and Bloody Jay). But Quan is different. They speak the same language and carve out areas in their music that weren’t there before. Their chemistry is vidid in every bar; the way they finish each other’s thoughts, the way they relate to what the other said, the obscure references to each other’s songs. There are strong solo moments on the tape. Quan delivers a touching love ballad in “Milk Marie” and Thugga goes super saiyan on opener “Givenchy,” but they really just act as filler for the glorious duets that highlight the mixtape. Quan claimed that him and Thug were the best duo since Outkast and that’s a heavy crown to bear. But after hearing them harmonize (harmonies! in rap!) it’s hard not to believe it too.

There a ton of great moments on Tha Tour Part 1, from the bonkers beats from London On Da Track and Dun Deal, to the way Birdman describes his bathroom, to Young Thug saying Uber (UUUUUU-BAHHH, it can never be said any other way now), but the thread connecting this large, unorganized project is the fraternity between the two leads. Rich Homie Quan plays the romantic, always searching for love, always crusading for a better lot in life. Thugga Thug plays the cynic, enjoying the moment while hardening his heart for the next. They’re like a rap game Boy Meets World. It’s a partnership that allows them to celebrate the joys of cunnilingus in “Tell Em (Lies)” and then drop a heartbreakingly poignant song about teaching their kids how to grow up on “Freestyle” without any dissonance. It’s a reminder that these guys are artists and their music has just as much depth as any other rap out there.

Looking back from a distance, the best mixtape of 2014 seems like a lost opportunity. The cast and characters that made this tape so wonderful are no longer together. Rich Homie Quan has focused on his solo career, leading to a rift with him and Young Thug. Birdman’s relationship with Thug has shifted from inspirational to menacing due to all the drama with his former protege Lil Wayne. Tha Tour Pt. 1 was named for two reasons: there would be a tour featuring Quan and Thug, and there would be a part two. Neither has happened. If this was going to be their one moment it would have been great if they made it truly spectacular: cleaned up the sound quality, edited out the excess tracks, added their hit single “Lifestyle” and some other standouts from the hundreds of songs they recorded, and really carved out their spot in rap history. But alas, Tha Tour Pt. 1 remains a beautiful anomaly, a brief moment where the sum total of its parts added up to something greater than the individuals. 

Get the mixtape here. It’s free!