Album Review: Run The Jewels—“Run The Jewels 2″

By Stuart Oakes

“I’m beginning to notice some improvement… I notice myself getting better at this.” – the great Spanish cellist Pablo Casals, on practicing everyday at age 93

You wake up in the morning and you are 40, 50, 60 years old. It is hard to get out of bed because your limbs ache in the morning. You should be having kids: kids who need lunches and drives to school and more attention than there are hours in the day. By all accounts, for popular musicians middle age means slowing down, sidling into that comfortable, low-maintenance role of elder statesman and spending a little more time with the family. You have done your bit as an artist, now you get to be a human and reap the rewards of your earlier successes. So what if the setlist is starting to sound a little familiar? The older fans are okay with it – they want to relive those moments too – and the younger crowd makes you feel like everything is happening for the first time.

Middle-aged musicians like Run The Jewels (the duo of El-P and Killer Mike), Swans and Sun Kil Moon successfully spent the 90s proving themselves, and if they want to ease up, get a real 9-5er Jay Z style – the original business, man to businessman – take the kids to the zoo and do a show when they felt like it, who could blame them? These acts already hold pretty heady legacies, particularly Run the Jewels: El-P is arguably responsible for as many classic albums as Kanye West and Killer Mike ran with the best in Atlanta. These two should be kicking back, not releasing Run The Jewels 2, one of the best albums this year in any genre. It seems like the utter joy the two men get from collaborating is enough to roll the years back and, with the strength of a rediscovered youth, fashion a career’s worth of experience into RTJ 2, a diamond the approximate size and shape of an angry African elephant. Be careful or it may just bore its way through your bedroom door, smack your brother, and then start snapping streetlights in half.

Album art for Run the Jewels 2

Album art for Run the Jewels 2

Like a diamond or an African elephant, RTJ 2 is brutal, hard, awe-inspiring and generally awesome. Beat-wise, the thing is vicious, which is no shock given that El-P, known for his aural battlefields, is at the helm. Still, the sheer sonic savageness is surprising. Beats like “Oh My Darling Don’t Cry” or “Blockbuster Night Pt. 1” sound like they want to and could kick you in the face (this album is not for everyone), and while the style still lines up with his Def Jux, backpack-rap days, the ferociousness that has marked his work with Mike is new. The fierce, triumphant swagger of “Jeopardy” could swallow lesser rappers alive, and the head-rush of “All Due Respect” would have them tripping over their tongues. Plus, it all has a sense of humour (especially if that sample halfway through “Oh My” is actually Wiz Khalifa’s goofy stoner laugh).

So it is a good thing that Mike and El-P are the ones holding the mics. The mark of a master is to make the task look easy, and the two rappers make taming the elephant look as effortless as breathing. Flows switch up, tumble around, perform breathtaking feats and sometimes shake themselves into the shape of something recognizable, like Mike’s “Move That Dope” flow on “Oh My Darling” (just to remind us that, yes, other rap still exists). The two tease out brilliant verses from the guest spots, which include Zach De La Rocha and Gansta Boo, but the main focus is on their own work, and at this point in their career it is a pleasure to hear the thrill they get from twisting syllables.

Lyrically, there is a lot of thoughtful, accurate insight here about the state of America and class politics (something Mike has built his reputation on). There is also a lot of next level shit-talking – El: “I don’t crash, bitch, I just skid”, Mike: “the closest representation to God you might see”, El: “I wear my Yankee so tilted I walk with a hunch”. This dichotomy places the album as an intermediate between the physical intensity of Swans and the serious introspection of Sun Kil Moon (two of the most celebrated bands of 2014) and as entirely singular within the current rap landscape. They may remain singular for a long time: not only are these guys untouchable right now but they show no signs of stopping and who could even try to replicate this sound – it took El-P twenty years to figure it out.

Conclusion: Run The Jewels 2 is a necessary listen. For Chris’sakes, the thing is free! (Mass Appeal)

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