After producing two of 2012’s most exciting rap albums, El-P and Killer Mike have joined forces for the 10-track Run the Jewels. The narrative of dynamic-MCs-turned-superpower may sound familiar. Sure, Jay-Z and Kanye did it on a much grander scale, but Watch the Throne ended up being a solid effort in the shadow of a mountain of hype.
The basis of any worthwhile friendship is how they get along with each other, and by that measure, the duo are more golden than Kanye’s sarcophaggus chain. That interplay begins with El-P’s production, as Run the Jewels is a subtle but profound fusion of El-P’s artsier Cancer For Cure and Mike’s more straight-bangin’ R.A.P. Music.
“Banana Clipper” finds the sweet spot between menacing bass banger and an avant-leaning master class in subtle sampling and layering. Meanwhile, “Get It” is maybe the album’s most direct beat, a grimy and raucous mix of scratchy synths and looped drums. But its subversion lies deeper, in the way its individual parts interact. Again, they’re slight shifts, but they’re the perfect compliment to El’s frenetic wordplay and Mike’s grand, swagger-drenched declarations.
As visceral and infectious as the beats are, their role is only to service and enhance the emotional sentiments. While they had less of an immediate, “oh damn, that’s hot!” impact, they’re integral parts of one well-oiled machine. With the beats forming the base, the album then shines as the pair interact lyrically in a way that optimizes emotionality.
The anti-drug banger “DDFH” (that’s “do dope, fuck hope”) sees Mike focus on police brutality (“cops in the ghetto they move like the gestapo/ drunk off their power and greed”), chronicling how the war on drugs has most affected young black men (“cause if you ain’t Jigga or Puff you doin time/ and even then you might get 10, word to Shyne”). Having less experience and authority with that end of the issue, El-P instead details the destructive power of drugs (“right above the clouds there’s a shroud there to smother us/ make a sane man walk around with a blunderbuss”), channeling his perceptions as a “story” to compliment Mike’s realistic take.
With “Sea Legs”, the duo’s verses are less connected but just as effective in purveying a singular idea. Seemingly a metaphor for endless touring (“it’s hard to say where this land begins and this water stops”), the two have uniquely different experiences. El-P chooses to focus on how the road increases his appetite for sinning (“get a couple drinks in the kid I can flip on a friend, take a drug, fuck a chick that I shouldn’t/ oh god I am one one of those mad men”).
Mike, on the other hand, plays off that fear, craving the freedom (“I feel my sanity slippin’/ and I think I like the freedom/ cannibal, animal, rappers, I eat ‘em”) to fuel his sense of competition (“I stand on towers like Eiffel, I rifle down all your idols/ niggas will perish in Paris, niggas is nothing but parrots”). Not only do they remain true to their inherent sensibilities, but they’ve found a way to tell powerful stories that are more multifaceted than anywhere else in rap.
What ultimately makes this more than a great album isn’t the teamwork or mutual respect, but that both men somehow leave the experience evolved creatively. El-P’s always been an MC who knows his way around a thesaurus, and while this LP sees plenty of that wordsmithery (“I’mma slang pope/ haranguing the land with a man’s flow”), he’s got more confidence to be more open. It’s not only in that increased breadth of his emotional revelations but in the very structure and content of some lines (there’s something doubly carefree about “we got 808s to make cats piss, right on the rug where the cat sits”). It’s not a huge adjustment, or even any dumbing down, just a sense that he doesn’t have to be the smartest man behind the mic.
Mike takes way more chances lyrically. Specifically, his boisterous, street-wise rhymes give way to the album’s lyrical apex: his verse in “No Come Down”. The entire lyrical goldmine is an old-school slice of hip-hop storytelling mixed with an absurdist’s sensibility that’s got El-P written all over it. It’s clever, inventive, revealing, and plays out genuinely spontaneous, the kind of display that further proves he’s got lots to say (not to mention why we should keep listening).
Sure, Jay and Ye are probably friends, maybe even with secret, $100,000 matching bracelets that say “Besties 4 Life”. But, on record, their relationship felt mostly lopsided and uneven. Run the Jewels, on the other hand, is the very synthesis of El-P and Mike’s shared admiration and cohesive worldviews, an effort of the purest collaboration and mutual understanding. Now, let your heart fill with love and bang your damn head up and down.
Essential Tracks: “No Come Down”, “DDFH”, and “Sea Legs”