Hungry Hippopotamus Best Albums of 2014: #1 – Freddie Gibbs

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We’re finally here! Look back at the nine previous albums now!

In Sprite’s new hip hop focused ad campaign, our resident rap ruler Drake says something a bit disorienting: “Just rapping is not really that impressive anymore. There just has to be more. You have to be a multi-layered artist.” The age of the rap-singer is upon us. As rap has gotten intertwined with pop, it’s as if the only way to get noticed is to immerse yourself to radio or stand out completely. So far 2015 has been the year of the rapper who doesn’t want to rap; they want to be a rockstar, or a jazz icon, or a fashionista, or a conductor. The most popular rapper on the planet doesn’t even write his own raps! Maybe Drake’s right and rapping isn’t impressive anymore. That’s the only explanation for the unfair, lukewarm reception that has greeted Freddie Gibbs and Madlib’s masterpiece Pinata. There’s nothing fancy, or even innovative, about this record. There’s just the best beats of the year from one of the greatest producers of all time and the best rhymes of the year from someone on the short list for best MC breathing. If that’s not impressive I don’t know what is.

This isn’t an obvious match. Freddie Gibbs, an L.A. transplant from Gary, Indiana, a rap cyborg who was kicked off Interscope for not toning down his technically driven murder music, teaming up with the Beat Konducta himself, the patron saint of the L.A. underground. Pinata (originally the much better named “Cocaine Pinata”) is not a beautiful act of chemistry. This is rap as athletic activity, with Madlib lobbing out absurdly difficult beats for Gibbs to knock out of the park. But what could have been a genre exercise turned into a masterpiece and a career benchmark for both parties. Freddie Gibbs got a chance to flex over the best production he’s ever had, forcing him to be more creative with his songwriting. Madlib, after years of churning out instrumental projects, came out of the wilderness to find one of the best rappers he’s had a chance to collaborate with. They both provided what the other needed.

Freddie Gibbs and Madlib are both incredible at what they do. The sheer technical prowess is so evident on the record — the way Madlib cuts his samples into jagged soundscapes, and the way Gibbs finds a way to flow over them — that Pinata could be the best album of the year on that merit alone. What exceeds expectations is how they find greatness in simplicity. All the song titles are one word and yet perfectly named, summarizing the efficient style of the album. For all the (unwarranted) critiques that Freddie Gibbs can be boring because of the homogeneity of his lyrics, Pinata finds him as a master songwriter. He tells stories with the best of them, whether about lost love on “Deeper” or adolescent memories on “Knick.” There’s the gleeful hedonism on “High” and the paranoid noir of “Bomb.” He drops off the best diss track of the decade with “Real,” a scathing, explicit attack on former mentor and rap icon Young Jeezy. There’s the delirious, playful “Robes” immediately followed by the poignant, world wearied hush of “Broken.” Pinata is a study of contrasts, with Gibbs spanning a field of ideas and emotions without it ever feeling too disparate. He has Madlib to thank for that, who plays John Williams to his Steven Spielberg. Much respect to DJ Mustard, Flying Lotus, El-P and the rest of the great producers this year, but Madlib takes home the crown for best production front to back on an album this year. These are beats you can drown in, blunted jazz so luxurious that you’ll want to wear it.

Like most great art, what started out as a creative exercise has become so much more. Twenty, maybe even ten years ago, this album would have been deemed iconic, and it’s a shame it hasn’t received that attention. It sounds like it comes from another funkier age. There are a lot of talented guest rappers on the album, but the only ones that manage to hold their own with Gibbs are the two hall of fame hip hop legends, Raekwon from the Wu-Tang Clan and Southern rap godfather Scarface, who sound as good as they ever have over Madlib’s sculpted loops.

Rap is changing at such a fast pace it’s hard to keep up with it. Drake’s right. You can’t just rap anymore to break out from the crowd, but when you rap this well, over beats this great, perhaps anonymity is what you need. To hear a genre done well at such an elemental level, there isn’t a greater thrill as a music fan. Call me impressed.

Read the original review here

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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.

Best Albums Of 2013: Part 1

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gravity (188) Animated Gif on Giphy

It’s gonna be a bumpy ride…

2013 was the year of the failed blockbuster.  From television to Hollywood, 2013 was filled with capital E Events, from epic finales to world ending movies.  And the music industry was no different.  Every week seemed to bring a new album hyped up by extravagant promotional tactics.  Justin Timberlake started it off by teasing his new album with a video and then became unavoidable through his commercial sponsors, but it only got more absurd.  Daft Punk played a 15 second video at Coachella, Miley Cyrus twerked at the VMAs, Katy Perry drove a truck on a cross country road trip, Arcade Fire donned giant heads in a fake band, and Lady Gaga spent $25 million of Interscope’s money creating an immersive party/performance art piece for her album’s launch.  This opulence spread to Hip Hop as well.  Kanye used guerilla fighters to display his face on buildings around the world.  Jay-Z scored an unprecedented deal with Samsung that sold a million copies before the album even dropped. Drake dropped off remixes and loosies that kept the internet buzzing and the radio spinning at 4 in the morning.  Even Eminem joined in on the high stakes, low reward fun by dropping a sequel to his classic Marshall Mathers LP and appearing on everything from Call Of Duty commercials to ESPN.  But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  This year felt like major label rap’s reaction to the excellence of last year, with a new generation of internet bred rappers collectively raising the bar for radio rap.  J. Cole, Wale, Big Sean, Pusha T, Drake, and all of the young major label signees released albums that tried to copy the grandeur and scope of Kendrick’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City, and even if they failed it still produced some of the better rap we’ve heard on the radio in a long time.  Things like “concept albums” and “lyricism” and “artistic talent” are being hailed as something good again.  Rap has taken over as the critically lauded genre.  Pitchfork ranked Drake and Kanye as their top 2 songs of the year.  Spin put Kanye and Chance as one and two on their best albums of the year and even ranked ATL dystopian strip club producer Mike Will Made It as their artist of the year.  So even though 2013 sometimes felt like a down year and maybe even a death knell for the “big albums,” there are more great things are on the way.  And there were still some dope albums.  Without further ado, the #hungryhippopotamus best albums of the year!

P.S.: There are maybe a couple non rap albums on this list and I feel silly about it.  I can’t judge how good they are because I can’t even pretend to say I listened to everything rock/edm/indie/R&B etc etc…, but I would also feel silly leaving them out because they were some of my favorites of the year.  So take them with a grain of salt.  Except the rap, that’s completely factual and true.

15: Young Thug – 1017 Thug

Brick Squad could have been one of the top crews this year.  Gucci Mane had positioned himself as a godfather of the New ATL movement and released a staggering number of projects that all ranged from ok to really good, Waka Flocka Flame put out his most exciting music in years, and a slew of new members helped secure the Squad’s new identity.  Unfortunately it all self-combusted as Flocka bailed and Gucci had a very public meltdown where he called out every rapper in the game on twitter.  But the brightest spot in all this was Young Thug, who’s 1017 Thug tape was one of the benchmarks for the new Atlanta production and the best thing Brick Squad did all year.  The beats just sparkle all over, with production from new ATL stalwarts such as Dun Deal, TM88, 808 Mafia, and C4.  Synths twinkle over skittering Hi-Hats, creating joyous hooks that needle into your brain and stay there.  But it doesn’t upstage Thugga himself, one of the most interesting rappers around right now.  Sounding like a cross between Lil Wayne and Future, Young Thug yelps, chirps, and raps unhinged throughout the whole tape. Riding unconventional flows, the beauty of the tape is how he’s able to make seemingly jarring noises into catchy strong songs.  Whether it’s through repetition on “2 Cups Stuffed,” or outright operatic singing on “Condo Music,” Young Thug finds his way around square pegs and forces them into round holes seamlessly.  Atlanta’s new digital drone may have found it’s way to radio this year, but 1017 Thug is proof that it sounds best paired with the ATL rapper who can outweird it.

     

14: Don Trip & Starlito – Step Brothers Two

Don Trip and Starlito, two rappers from from Tennessee, were hard working solo artists who made a lot of noise when they teamed up to make one of the best albums of 2011 with Step Brothers.  Inspired by the Will Ferrell film, the two rappers displayed absurd amounts of chemistry as both of them tried to one up the other with each song.  It was the closest thing there was to vintage Lil Wayne when Weezy was busy making songs for soccer moms.  A lot of good it did them.  Two years later, Trip and ‘Lito are still stuck in record label hell with just a devoted fan base to show for their efforts.  So instead of the free spirited fun that powered the original, Step Brothers Two is a combination of vivid emotional clarity and complex lyricism. Don Trip and Starlito prove once again that they’re one of the best duos around, with Trip’s high pitched wheeze matching perfectly with Lito’s sleep deprived drawl.  Starlito raps in run on sentences where he just keeps layering his points upon points, while Don Trip raps as if he’s about to detonate at any second, punctuating all of his lines with perfect end notes.  And they sound best when working together, whether it’s on the Shakespearean betrayal of “Caesar & Brutus” or a story of gun violence on “Leash On Life.”  Starlito and Don Trip have the type of chemistry that ranks with the best of them and simply can’t be taught.  Here’s hoping they find another Will Ferrell movie to inspire them.

 

13: Curren$y – New Jet City

The cliche that Curren$y is the hardest working stoner is getting old.  After years of running the mixtape circuit, his major label debut The Stoned Immaculate didn’t elevate him into the upper echelon last year like he hoped.  Taking a left turn, Curren$y spent most of 2013 putting on for his team Jet Life, securing a distribution deal with BitTorrent and releasing group tapes and collaborative EP’s.  But that still left New Jet City, the only solo project that Curren$y dropped all year.  It plays like an inversion of his major label album, a big budget project gone to the dirty south.  The beats range among the most varied Curren$y’s ever tried, from the horn stabs of “New Jet City” to the EDM riff of “Coolie In The Cut” to the interstellar boom bap of “Clear.”  Curren$y remains a deceptively strong rapper who’s usually relies on his effortless flows but New Jet City ends up standing above the rest of his work because of his hooks.  Without even trying, Spitta Andretti accomplished what he was trying to do with The Stoned Immaculate; create a radio friendly album.  Credit that to his self awareness and knowing exactly how far he can push his style without losing his quality.  High profile rap stars like Rick Ross, Wiz Khalifa, and French Montana sound equally comfortable rapping with him as older legends like Styles P, Jadakiss, or Juvenile.  And for a laid back rapper, Curren$y has evolved his style into one of the most unpredictable flows in the game.  He can slow it down to a syllabic crawl on “Bitch Get Up” or he can body a double time flow on “Mary.”  But he’s at his best when he combines his relaxed charm with his “put it on a t-shirt” lyrics like he does on “Choosin.”  As long as Curren$y stays fly, his music won’t be coming down anytime soon.

 

12: Haim – Days Are Gone

These three sisters from LA are about the farthest thing there is from Hip Hop so it speaks volumes that they’ve already collaborated with Kid Cudi, A$AP Rocky, and Childish Gambino.  So far this decade guitar groups have been practically irrelevant.  Most of the big rock bands have copied electronica producers and dealt mostly in textures and mood rather than riffs and power chords.  Arcade Fire teamed up with indie-electronic producer extraordinaire James Murphy to create a stadium dance record.  Vampire Weekend retreated into their textbooks and spent 45 minutes lightly treading over soft melodies.  My Bloody Valentine returned triumphant to an indie landscape completely influenced by their shoegaze dronings.  Haim blasted through all the fog with their pitch perfect pop rock debut Days Are Gone.  They are a reincarnation of Fleetwood Mac, with every song on the album a possible hit if it was 1977.  But the album isn’t just a nostalgia trip.  It’s remarkable in its ability to channel the Laurel Canyon influences of Joni Mitchell and Stevie Nicks and put a modern edge to it.  See the Prince-esque gasps of “Falling,” or the Jack White dirty guitar wobble of “My Song 5.”  The harmonies, the riffs, the hooks, Haim makes all these old-fashioned songwriting tropes fresh again.  It’s like you’re hearing rock and roll for the first time.

 

11: Childish Gambino – Because The Internet

Donald Glover is the renaissance man of the 21st century.  He’s a stand up comic who became internet-famous for his sketch comedy group Derrick Comedy.  He won an Emmy as a writer for 30 Rock and plays a main character on the cult TV show Community.  And he’s the rapper inspired by the Wu-Tang Name Generator, Childish Gambino.  Gambino’s writing bears the wit of someone who wrote for Tina Fey but that’s a gift and a curse.  Sometimes he has laugh out loud “I can’t believe he thought of that” bars and then sometimes it feels like a bad sketch on SNL.  When he avoids cornball jokes to delve into serious territory, he merely reiterates the trailblazing of Kanye and Drake, hoping to stir up racial norms but just ends up being unimaginative.  In some ways, Because The Internet succeeds because Gambino has found better source material.  Opener “The Crawl” sounds like a burnt out Ab-Soul and “Urn” openly apes for Frank Ocean’s lingering soul.  But the biggest influence here is Kendrick, who’s cinematic vision is being emulated here quite literally.  Not only are their sketches in the middle of songs, but the tracklisting is numbered like a play and there is an accompanying screenplay.  Ambition doesn’t equal success however, and the second half of the tape falls apart under the weight of the concept.  Punctuated by strong sections of rapping, the latter half is simply a mess, with sloppy transitions, no hooks, and no focus whatsoever.  Maybe it works better when paired with the script.  Because The Internet arrives on this list because the first half is one of the strongest collections of songs this year with Childish Gambino finally using all his talent to full advantage.  He’s improved tremendously as a rapper, pairing his best punchline bars with a double time flow on “Sweatpants” or playing around with his voice on “Worldstar.”  His beats have gotten way better as well, using sunny wah wah guitars at the end of “The Worst Guys” or inviting space funk bassist Thundercat to rumble over “Shadows.”  Childish Gambino uses the album not necessarily as a large concept album about the internet (although he might, I haven’t read the screenplay), but as a way to show how people relate to their surroundings with all the constant stimulation.  And it allows a glorious look inside his head on “Telegraph,” where you hear Gambino start listening to a song on the radio and then starts singing along, until it actually turns into his song.  The album may be a bit of a mess, but there are more than enough good parts to make up for it.    

http://vimeo.com/80831476

(can’t play it here because it’s private, but that’s the link to “The Worst Guys” music video.  You should watch it, Chance The Rapper smokes a doobie on a surfboard. The password is 12.10.13SIXTY)

10: Run The Jewels – Run The Jewels

It’s like Ghostface Killah said.  All you need for great rap is just fly rhymes over dope beats.  And that’s exactly what Run The Jewels was.  After an incredible 2012 which found Killer Mike releasing the best political album in recent memory and El-P emerging as a godfather to the new New York underground and updating his signature dystopian production style, Run The Jewels sees the duo teaming up for an old school beat em up record.  Without the constraints of serious topics, Killer Mike and El-P just show off their chemistry and mic skills to fantastic results.  The real hero of the tape is Mike, who is quietly asserting himself as an All-Rap first team candidate.  He rifles down the competition on “Sea Legs,” goes on a drug addled romantic tryst on “No Come Down” and just rips apart the beat on some Arnold Schwarzenegger steez in “Job Well Done.”  El-P does a great job as sidekick here and the chemistry between the two is fantastic.  But his real addition for the tape is the head knocking beats.  He abandons his sci-fi apocalyptic fervor to create an old-school boom bap canvas that put Eminem and his Rick Rubin beats to shame.  Every beat sounds like it was made out metal, which underlines the two MC’s threats perfectly as they chew their way through it.  El-P even brings old school legend DJ Q-Bert to scratch on “Get It.”  This is the type of old school rap album that everyone was clamoring for in 2013.  Here’s hoping the sequel (coming out in 2014) will be just as good.

 

9: Juicy J – Stay Trippy

For Juicy J, “stay trippy” isn’t just a slogan; it’s a life motto.  It’s how a 38 year old rapper who’s prime was behind him ended up becoming king of the ratchets and a radio staple.  He rewrote the rap book on second acts.  Noticing the influence of his old group Three 6 Mafia on a whole generation of young fans, Juicy J jumped into the internet head first and linked up with aspiring young producers like Lex Luger and Mike Will Made It who looked up to him as a hero.  Signing with Wiz Khalifa’s Taylor Gang (easily the most successful pairing of old rapper with young rapper) and scoring a huge hit with “Bands A Make Her Dance,” Juicy had a coalition of fans that other artists would envy.  Stay Trippy finds him balancing summer radio jams, dark Memphis murder raps, and ethereal stoner trance without losing any of his core identity.  It was the party album of the summer.  There are no awkward radio grabs and no forced collaborations.  Every song is a showcase for a master at work.  He makes his features come into his world, not the other way around, as he creates the hooks himself for “Bands” and “Bounce It.”  “Wax” sounds like heaven opened its doors for a devil to come through while “Gun Plus A Mask” is a horror movie on record.  And even though Juicy stays in his own lane he still manages to surprise, like when he combines a posthumous Pimp C verse with a Weekend sample on “Smokin Rollin”, or creates a love song with Justin Timberlake and Timbaland on “The Woods” (which is seriously the best thing JT has done all year. How is this not a single??).  Stay Trippy plays out like Juicy J is in “The Wolf Of Wall Street,” a professional partier who’s hedonism is hard work.  By the time it ends with “If I Ain’t,” his words become anthems; “If it ain’t kush it won’t touch my lighter, I only smoke that shit that get me higher.  If it ain’t drank it ain’t in my cup, it gotta be that purple and yellow; I’m turning up.”  Stay trippy indeed.

 

8: Kanye West – Yeezus

Has there even been an album like Yeezus before?  Has a monolithic pop star at the peak of his career ever released an album this divisive?  No wonder it drew the respect of the late Lou Reed. It’s easy to forget about the music of Yeezus when so much of Kanye’s press was about other factors.  The guerilla album rollout.  His “no art” album art.  His press run of rants on Jools Holland, Jimmy Kimmel, and Sway In The Morning.  His too fake to be real relationship with Kim Kardashian.  His immense national tour.  His confederate flag appropriating tour merchandise.  All of that leaves Yeezus in a tough position.  It is easy for it to be merely a symbol for Kanye West, the divisive cultural figure.  But even without all of that, the music would speak for itself.  The production hits like a sledgehammer, Daft Punk produced house music edged down with Rick Rubin’s boom bap.  The minimalistic setting lets every sound have meaning: the glitchy synths of “On Sight,” the drum roll of “Black Skinhead,” Chief Keef’s distorted mumble on “Hold My Liquor,” the horn blasts of “Blood On The Leaves.”  And above it all is Kanye, who snarls about civil rights and croons about sexual wrongs in the same breath before coming to the best ending the year had after Breaking Bad.  Egotists like Kanye rarely make something as focused as Yeezus, so give credit to Mr. West that his genius is able to be reeled in.  And just in case there was doubt that Kanye isn’t the most eminent taste maker this world has seen since Walt Disney and Steve Jobs and Jesus Christ and Fabio, note how even this abrasive single-less album has found it’s way into the heart of pop culture.  Whether it’s “Black Skinhead” playing on commercials, James Franco and Seth Rogen parodying his music videos, or his silhouette hanging from a poplar tree the same night as Miley twerked for the nation, Kanye has proved he’s the epicenter of pop culture even when he’s trying to push everyone away.  Yeezus isn’t the best album of the year but it might be the most important.

Do Dope, Fuck Hope, Run Jewels

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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.