Run The Jewels — Run The Jewels 2
Riding on the crest of a massive wave of critical acclaim, Run The Jewels issued the follow-up to their debut masterpiece in relatively short order. After dropping the sleeper hit of 2013, followed by an extensive tour in support of the effort, El-P and Killer Mike were already back in the studio before the dust fully settled. Maybe there's something to be said for striking while the iron is hot, but matching the quality of the group's debut effort is a task of the highest order.
I think it's fair to say there was a lot of expectation looming over Run The Jewels 2 — dropping a classic follow-up, while not an impossible task, is literally asking for lightning to strike twice. It can happen, but betting against such an occurrence is more a nod to Regression To The Mean than it is evidence of finely tuned foresight.
All that being said, any concerns about a drop in quality from one record to the next were unfounded. This review has the benefit of a year's worth of hindsight, but even leading up to its release I felt a lot of enthusiasm. I'm not one for paying attention to artists directly, I just like to evaluate the end result of their machinations. Still, I felt compelled to follow El-P and Killer Mike on Twitter and was given a look into the minds of two very interesting, very creative individuals.
The level of engagement Run The Jewels has with their fan-base cannot be overstated; as the follow-up record began to crystalise, the various snippets and teasers released helped foment a growing desire for more material from the group. Both Mike and El managed to establish themselves as interesting voices for social progress, without the burdensome pretension that accompanies many artists who take political stances in their music and in society at large. Simply put, I appreciated their candor and wanted to hear more from them.
Owing to a long-standing relationship with Adult Swim, the first track the world heard from Run The Jewels 2 was "Blockbuster Night Pt. 1," a no-nonsense track that exemplifies Run The Jewels in its rawest form. A thumping bassline and kick drum lead in to Killer Mike casually dropping verses chock-full of references to everything from Slick Rick to Jake "The Snake" Roberts. All I had to hear was that trademarked El-P production value with him and Killer Mike trading verses to know that the fires of creativity hadn't waned in the slightest over the previous year. Unsurprisingly I have personally seen the song incite a mosh pit in a live concert setting. (I believe I recall El-P kindly advising members of the audience to ensure their beers, glasses and colostomy bags were well secured prior to the ensuing madness.)
The next track to be previewed was "Oh My Darling Don't Cry." another first rate effort. Maybe it's because I was born in 1983 and literally wore out a tape of the first Police Academy movie, but hearing Michael Winslow say "you are now listening to Run The Jewels" in this track's intro triggered a nostalgia-fueled endorphin rush of epic proportions. The track demonstrates the same raw, focused energy as all prior Run The Jewels material — peppering the listener with a rapid-fire series of verses and an incredibly up-tempo beat. In the wake of these two teasers, any concerns about a possible dip in quality could safely be put to bed.
The remainder of the album trickled out slowly, with the group releasing the entire record approximately a week in advance of the stated release date. Speaking strictly as a jaded thirty-something, I can't recall a more anticipated album release in my life-time. I've never been tapped in to the bleeding edge of popular culture, so seeing Run The Jewels explode in popularity at a pace matching my growing fandom — well, that was really something. I had my physical copy on pre-order and scooped up my digital version as fast as humanly possible.
The entirety of Run The Jewels 2 is another masterwork of hip hop, rap, whatever you want to call it. Every element of the group's first release is further refined on their second outing, showcasing an even further evolved chemistry between two immensely talented individuals. El-P's production is, once again, on point, and Killer Mike continues to demonstrate a level of lyricism and technical rapping that boggles the mind. From the first-person narrative of police brutality in "Early," to the chilling confession of a young coke dealer on "Crown," Mike mixes hard shots of hip hop not-so-humble-brags with incisive social commentary. Furthermore, El-P offers up his own brand of contrarian, anti-authoritarian views which resonate perfectly with his partner in rhyme.
As demonstrated on the group's debut effort, Run The Jewels cover a gauntlet of subjects and lines of thought. The follow-up is no different in this regard, also coming in the form of a densely packed, short, to-the-point record that runs just a little under forty minutes. One of my favourite aspects of each Run The Jewels album is the fact that each song is filled with so many quotable sections, and yet most of these songs lack a discernible chorus. The duality of the group was best expressed by El-P when he stated, in an interview, that he felt somewhat bad for people who found the group through Killer Mike's eloquent appearances on television, and then he's telling them to walk backwards through a field of dicks on this record. They lure you in with the absurdity, and you stick around for the thoughts with substance. (And, maybe, some do the reverse.)
All things considered, Run The Jewels put together another solid collection of songs — each and every one a worthy inclusion on the album. The pacing of the record is perfect, opening with all-out aggression and boasting of the highest order. Run The Jewels 2 carries an underlying confident swagger, but traverses a lot of ground — from bravado to brooding, sometimes at the drop of a hat. In recognition of the group's craft, I have to note that "Love Again" is an incredible song, if not the raunchiest thing I've ever heard. On my first listen, I was almost put off by the blunt sexuality of the song, until Gangsta Boo completely flipped the script. I'm not going to lie, I'm positive she made me blush more than a few times. The song is not for the feint of heart; it's an expression of raw sexuality from bother genders' point of view — the bass line alone sounds like the score to a ruggedly filmed porn — it's great.
Just as with the group's self-titled debut, the album closes on a somber note with "Angel Duster." The track serves as a perfect bookend to the album; a wall of synths provides a sort of post-apocalyptic vibe to a closer rife with self-reflection and entreats to defy authority in all forms. When Killer Mike spouts "a pope is a fraud / a church is a lie / a queen is the same damn thing / you should pray to your fake god that she die," I couldn't help but get chills. The anxious, brooding beat acts as a perfect backdrop to one of the album's darker songs, playing out to a dissonant piano solo as the record ends. As with the first release, Run The Jewels 2 ends and leaves you wanting more; no wasted time, no pointless skits, no filler material — we now have over an hour's worth of top-shelf material from the rap genre spread out over two amazing records.
The only reason this was not my album of the year was because The Project Hate MCMXCIX also released their latest work, and they happen to be my favourite band of all time — a status they have held for almost half of my life. So, short of personal bias of the highest order, Run The Jewels 2 is most likely one of the best releases of 2014. Run The Jewels have proven beyond a doubt that their debut was more than just a fluke convergence of all-time best performances. Killer Mike and El-P continue to bring out the best in each other — expert production serving as backing to rappers trading verses most emcees would kill to write. It's records like Run The Jewels 2 that make it impossible not to abandon all objectivity and just appreciate being along for the ride.
Release date: October 24th, 2014
Record label: Mass Appeal Records
Killer Mike — vocals
El-P — production, vocals
- Oh My Darling Don't Cry
- Blockbuster Night Pt. 1
- Close Your Eyes (And Count To Fuck) feat. Zack de la Rocha
- All My Life
- Lie, Cheat, Steal
- Early (feat. BOOTS)
- All Due Respect (feat. Travis Barker)
- Love Again (Akinyele Back) feat. Gangsta Boo
- Crown (feat. Diane Coffee)
- Blockbuster Night Pt. 2 (feat. Despot and Wiki)
Published: October 14, 2015