Even for those of us who go all the way back to “8 Steps to Perfection” and “The Whole World”, it's starting to feel like El-P and Killer Mike have always been talked about in the same breath. The connection makes a kind of retroactive sense going back to their early 2000s solo debuts, Fantastic Damage and Monster. Both albums seethed with the anxious funk of retrofuture 808s-and-synths production that rattled trunks and cages with unrestrained intensity. And both portrayed the artists as out-of-control forces trying their damnedest to stay true to friends, family, and hip-hop while confronting disenfranchisement, abuse, and cynicism. That their creators would gravitate towards collaboration makes even more sense now than it does with hindsight in mind, as the 1-2 hooks to the head of Cancer for Cure and R.A.P. Music shared not just a producer and a timeframe, but the kind of catharsis-fueled defiance that career no-sellout vets live and breathe.
Thankfully, El-P and Killer Mike made a point to keep working together, and by all accounts their two-MCs/one-producer teamup Run the Jewels was meant to be some kind of “cool-down” record-- just something they could brainstorm up and record as a sort of fun, no-stress victory lap in celebration of a triumphant 2012. But if that kind of session reads as a low-stakes slack-off, especially in the form of a free 33-minute download, keep in mind just what constitutes “fun” for these guys. At the top of the list, it's the process-- workshopping ideas, putting things together, delivering them with conviction, and bringing it out to a rampant fanbase prone to drawing irreverent fan-art and ordering special-edition herb grinders. No excuse to relax here.
The only significant sign that El-P and Killer Mike are taking things “easier” on this album is the focus on shit-talk: aside from the confessional coming-of-age self-pep talk of closer “A Christmas Fucking Miracle”, there's little-to-no high-concept storytelling and a minimum of “Reagan”/”Drones Over Bklyn”-style political science. They haven't gotten complacent-- that latter song gets fleetingly referenced in a Mike line on “DDFH”, one of the few verses that catches the same police-state anger that R.A.P. Music did. And El still raps like somebody who's not sure if he's the last sane man or the craziest man on earth, carrying his refined maniacal diatribes over from Cancer for Cure. But the majority of Run the Jewels is a succession of throw-shit-out-a-window anthems which take the early-LL knuckles-first bragging that inspired the name, running their own psilocybin-tinged mean streak through it.
The deepest messages of Run the Jewels are the ones dedicated to figuring out just how many ways there are to threaten bodily trauma in the most over-the-top language possible while not actually coming across like some screwfaced shock-value manchild. It feels as though the options of either catching a bad one or riding with them are easier to decide between because the latter sounds like it'd be a hell of a time anyways. And there's this sense of friendly, unspoken one-upsmanship between the two MCs that keeps upping the stakes. Mike on the title track: “I'll pull this pistol, put it on your poodle or your fuckin' baby.” El on “Sea Legs”: “Try to pet my fuckin' head again and I'm'a put a tooth through the flesh of the palm that you jack with.” Mike on “Get It”: “stupid goofy stoolie, the gooch in Gucci will slap you/ and that go for the cop-kissing cats that's in the back of you.” El on “Twin Hype Back”: “Me and Mike'll go Twin Hype and do a dance on your windpipe/ put your fuckin' jazz hands back in your pants or get them shits sliced.” It's a game of the dozens where the barbs are aimed outwards and funny-looking moms are swapped for an all-encompassing People Who Fuck With Us category.
In the process, both MCs have both started to meet each other halfway personality-wise, though that wasn't a long trip to begin with. El's panic-attack rasp has grown into this fluid delivery that's become as immersive as his older hitched-timing flow was, spitting slick bars and doubletimes that make the acidic comedy roll out like his own take on vintage Ludacris. And Mike maintains his wrecking-ball mode, but twists it into moments of psychedelic delirium and over-the-top throat tearing, a man incapable of sounding nonchalant about anything getting the chance to turn that elbow-throwing flow into the narrator for a story about getting a lapdance on mushrooms (“No Come Down”) or turning it up to the breaking point on the grimy Tyson-isms of “Job Well Done”. When they get into verse-swapping back-and-forths on “Twin Hype Back”, “Get It”, and “Banana Clipper” (where an otherwise excellent Big Boi verse bizarrely feels like an afterthought in comparison), or throw around conversational line-finishing asides elsewhere, the rapport's enough to raise questions as to why this teamup was supposed to be unusual in the first place.
This is hardhead music, but it's also supposed to be a good time-- shit, they even brought in Prince Paul to do his oily weirdo pick-up artist Chest Rockwell routine on “Twin Hype Back”. (“I got your glass of Beefeater, I got a brand new deck of Uno cards... how 'bout I come over tonight and pick you up in my brand new Segway?”) So El-P pulls out the stops in making the abrasive, heavy aspects of his production sound boombox-ready. If this stuff's “dystopian,” you might as well book a party bus to Airstrip One: growling synthesized basslines do the heavy lifting as percussion skitters beneath like warped distortions of the 84, 96, and 02 versions of analog hip-hop, a cohesive sound that serves as a reminder that Georgia and New York are both technically East Coast. El's signature production touches-- minor-key chord drones, ligament-snapping guitar squalls, highwire arpeggios, twitchy drum patterns that are as restless as a rock-solid beat can get-- are put to pretty straightforward use this time around.
The beats fit the blueprint of R.A.P. Music's tendency to let the voices supply most of the brute force; it still bumps like a bastard, but not in the kind of way that had Yeezus casualties scrambling for punk rock namedrops. It's just a distilled take on everything that made last year's albums such an event, with all the chrome ripped off and upholstery pulled out so it'll run faster, louder, nastier. Yeah, it's a fun album, and it's probably the most affable thing they've done so far together. But don't take that for a weakness. They don't yank chains-- they snatch them.
item # 39107