The parallel is both obvious and ludicrous, and I kind of hate myself for making it, but just bear with me for a minute. Two years ago, a ferocious veteran rapper and a boundary-smashing, synth-addicted rapper/producer, two guys who’d been friends and collaborators for a long time, got together, as a duo, to make an album. And when they gave that album its title, they picked a three-word command: Watch The Throne. As commands go, that’s a pretty passive one: Behold the faraway magnificence of these two wealthy god-figures, examples to which you can never hope to aspire. This week, it happened again, but this time, the title has a whole different connotation. Run The Jewels is a hard, immediate command: Give me your fucking expensive things right now or die. That’s a crucial difference, since no rap album I’ve heard this year — Yeezus included — has the breathless all-crushing urgency that El-P and Killer Mike have worked up on Run The Jewels. It’s a 10-song, 40-minute cluster-bomb of an album. There’s no fat, no indulgence, barely any outside contribution, precious little in the way of contemplation or introversion. Mike and El aren’t worried about their legacies or the current state of rap or the encroaching surveillance state or their own tortured pasts — all subjects these guys have made great music about before. They just want to make your neck jerk, one way or another.
In putting together his own albums, El-P has always shown a heady conceptualist streak; back when he was in Company Flow, after all, he once produced a whole instrumental album about a little kid in an insane asylum (or something). But I’ve always liked El best when he was in fired-up shit-talk form, as on his guest verse from Aesop Rock’s “We’re Famous,” wherein he torched the empires of Boston goofs 7L & Esoteric and then salted the ground. On Run The Jewels, that’s basically all he does. As the album comes to a close on “A Christmas Fucking Miracle,” he does dig a bit into his lost-kid past. For the most part, though, he’s strictly in firebreather form, and he’s the rare rapper who’s gotten better at that kind of thing as he gets old. At this point, El’s delivery is the same pointed bark it’s always been, but it’s more rhythmically assured and direct; he no longer struggles against the beats he makes for himself. There’s a bit of Southern-style double-time in his cadence; he sounds like he’s having fun. Lyrically, too, he’s all slick threats and punchlines: “Try to say grace, get a faceful of staples.” And when he does dip into the subject of how deeply fucked-up the world is, it’s still in the context of how bad a rapper he is: “Monks won’t immolate themselves until the record hits the shelves… Workers at the sweatshop kill their boss to how the vets drop.”
As a producer, too, he’s adjusted his aims here, streamlining the world-destroying synth-buzz of his last couple of albums. His sounds are as vicious as ever, but they’re more straightforward, less bent on rupture and tangent. There are all sorts of subtle music-dork touches in there, too, like the way he uses the “Apache” break on “Run The Jewels,” speeding it up until it sounds like a panic attack, or the way he seems to be the sole rap producer who understands the song-ending power of a scratch solo at this late date. The album is sequenced so that every track crashes headlong into the next one, leaving no recovery time. And he’s in primal-anthem mode on every one of these tracks. When rap albums have only one producer, those albums tend to have a certain cohesion that other rap albums lack. When that one producer is focusing on one aspect of its sound, pushing that side of things as far as they’ll go, the album feels even more like one inseparable slab. That’s what’s happening here.
And as for Killer Mike, I mean, goddam, holy shit. He’s always been a monster, but he is monstering out extra hard here. Listen, for example, to how in-the-zone he is on the opening verse from “Job Well Done,” the way Mike starts out relatively calm and controlled but works himself into a lather in a matter of second. The words are great rap shit-talk: “I’m like Tyson in the ’80s, nigga, snap and punch your lights out / I’m like Tyson in the ’90s, if I’m losing take a bite out.” But the emphases, the actual intonations of the words, are better: “Every word murderful, surgical, painful, purposeful / And I take being left off your fuck list personal.” It’s like he hears how awesome he sounds, and it makes him angry. Back when he was a frequent presence on OutKast tracks, Mike’s voice had a way of cutting through all the oblique funk and tapping into some elemental roar in a way that Andre and Big Boi would never allow themselves to do. On El-P’s martial tracks, though, he sounds perfectly at home, like he’s finally found music as intense and warlike as his voice. And he’s having fun, too.
We already knew, from R.A.P. Music and from Mike’s one appearance on Cancer For Cure, that these two guys bring out the best in each other. What we might not have foreseen is how much they seem to like rapping together. These two come from vastly different scenes and circumstances, but there’s an easy, unforced chemistry that shows them to be true kindred spirits. You can hear it in the way Mike rattles off El-P song titles or shouts out El’s fallen friend Camu Tao, or even just in the way Mike yells El’s name when it’s time for El to rap. You can hear it in the way El throws delighted ad-libs all over Mike’s verses. And you can hear it in the way the two trade off lines, even going to the old Run-DMC tag-team style on a few tracks rather than taking their own verses. On “Banana Clipper,” after they’ve spent most of the track tossing lines back and forth, Big Boi shows up for a typically excellent guest verse, and it feels almost like an afterthought, an unneeded flourish. And that’s Big Boi. He’s not a guy who tends to lower the energy level when he shows up on a song. Big Boi is the only guest rapper on the whole album, and so much the better. Killer Mike and El-P are an entirely sui generis team, a unit who doesn’t need help from anyone. El-P’s been hinting on Twitter that this may not be the last Run The Jewels project. I hope it’s not. But even if it is, it’s a bracing slap of a thing, and we’re lucky to have it in our lives.
Other albums of note out this week:
• The Electronic Anthology Project’s synthopped-out Death Cab For Cutie covers album.
• Kirin J Callahan’s squiggling postpunk grind Embracism.
• Massachusetts indie band Ovlov’s debut AM.
• Maya Jane Coles’s exploratory house album Comfort.