Print Edition: November 19, 2014
Following up the critical success of Run the Jewels, Atlanta rapper Michael Render, a.k.a. Killer Mike, and New York native Jaime Meline, also known as El-P, released the latest fruit of their collaborative genius in the form of Run the Jewels 2. The record is particularly full of vivid imagery only Run the Jewels can deliver, a mixture of ridiculous violence and hilarity. The record’s production is as appropriate as it could be, considering the two men rapping over it; heavy, sometimes dissonant beats blast and drone on in a lumbering and ominous manner that’s as dark and brooding as anything you’ve ever heard. There are no pop beats here; they’ve been trampled to death by the rumbling colossus that is RTJ2.
“Jeopardy,” the first track on the record, starts with an ominous production that increases in tension as the track goes on. Killer Mike starts calmly spitting in his distinctive southern drawl that gradually builds up in intensity with the track, then gives way to El-P’s verse which lets the listener know they’re in for an uncompromising ride.
On “Oh My Darling Don’t Cry” Killer Mike and El-P trade verses, complementing each other’s styles beautifully; the track also boasts some hilarious imagery courtesy of El-P as he proclaims, “Style violent, give a fuck if you deny it, kids / You can all run naked backwards through a field of dicks.” This ain’t your grandma’s top-of-the-pops hip-hop, and El-P and Killer Mike make damn sure you know that.
Capitalizing on the inertia of “Oh My Darling,” “Blockbuster Night Pt. 1” kicks in with a pulsing, unforgiving beat. If your introductory poetry classes failed to instill in you a firm grasp of the concept of alliteration, look no further than this track, as both rappers flawlessly stack verse atop of verse, forming a lofty throne of hip-hop royalty from which they rule their own unforgiving realm.
Rage Against the Machine’s Zack de la Rocha makes a (slightly annoying) guest appearance on “Close Your Eyes (And Count To Fuck),” but both Killer Mike and El-P deliver on the track. El-P’s apparent dislike for what he considers to be a corrupt justice system comes through: “We out of order, your honour, you’re out of order / This whole court is unimportant, you fuckers are walking corpses,” a sentiment that Killer Mike seems to share.
“Lie, Cheat, Steal” is also lyrically and rhythmically astounding, and is one of the standout tracks on the record. Again, there’s some very striking imagery on the track (“A wild one who’ll swim like directly after he’s eaten / while holding a toaster oven that’s plugged with a fork in it / Cause death by electrocution’s like life in New York, isn’t it?”)
“Early” is a track that very clearly communicates Big Mike’s contempt for the abuse of power by police, as he describes a routine search by a policeman that ends with the narrator in the back of a police car witnessing the harassment of his wife: “Saw the copper pull a gun and put it on my gorgeous queen / as I peered out the window I could see my other kinfolk and hear my little boy as he screamed / As he ran toward the copper, begged him not to hurt his mamma cause he had her face-down on the ground.” There is no shying away from controversial topics on this record, but unlike many other rappers, there is no indication of ignorance on either El-P’s or Killer Mike’s part — these are two of the most well-informed rappers I’ve ever come across.
The most striking track on the record is “Crown,” featuring vocals by Dianne Coffee. The first verse goes over Killer Mike’s history as a drug dealer, as he regrets selling cocaine to a pregnant woman. He swears to himself that he “won’t be the same kind of man that puts cocaine in this lady’s hand / Heard she was pregnant, I’m guilty I reckon cause I hear that good shit can hurt baby’s brain / Heard he was normal ‘til three and then he stopped talkin’/ Since then, ain’t nothing been the same.” He later finds out the baby was all right, but can’t shake his distress over what he’s done.
El-P’s verse on the same track takes a different angle. It’s a scathing and unforgiving criticism of the US military and its actions. The verse is written as if it were coming from the military itself: “We’ll teach you to move without mercy and give you the tools to go after the causers of hurt / You’ll become Death, you will take breath / This is for everything you’ve ever loved / Use all the pain you’ve felt in your life as the currency, go out and trade it for blood / You are not you, you are now us, we are the only ones that you can trust.” As well as being a strikingly powerful statement, the verse is also sublime poetry and a direct attack on military action in general: “You are the smoldering vessel of punishment born to do nothing but justify us … everything you’ve ever been is replaced by the metal and fire of the weapon you clutch.”
Run The Jewels 2 is not only one of the best hip-hop records to come out this year, it’s also an open letter, written by two experienced, educated, talented, and severely pissed-off men, aimed at the crumbling social circumstances which surround them.