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That fuckboy life about to be repealed, that fuckboy shit about to be repelled, fuckboy Jihad, kill infidels, Allahu Akbar, BOOM from Mike and El.”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.

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.