Run The Jewels

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.

Run The Jewels is out now on Fool’s Gold; download it for free here.

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.

Comments (16)
  1. This album blew my mind in every conceivable day.

    These guys need to continue making music together. The universe demands it.

  2. I know Big Boi’s appearance is kind of an after thought because it works so well but holy shit he absolutely destroys it.

  3. The Orwells “Other Voices EP” was released last week but it deserves a mention because of how awesome it is.

  4. Other albums came out this week?

  5. “And as for Killer Mike, I mean, goddam, holy shit.”

    Took the words right out my mouth.

    And your Watch the Throne comparison isn’t off base at all. Mike even makes the connection for us on “Sea Legs”

    “There will be no reprieve for the thieves/ There will be no respect for The Thrones”

    Then a few bars later…

    “I stand on towers like Eiffel, I rifle down all your idols/ N****s will perish in Paris, n****s is nothing but parrots.”

    And there are plenty more bars in other songs. My favorite is on “Get It” (of course a Mike verse)

    “We’re here to tell you all your false idols are just pretenders/ They’re corporation slaves indentured to all the lenders”

    “New Slaves” in just two bars. Plus that song has been out since BEFORE Jay-Z showed how much of a corporation slave he is.

    Once again, Mike & El predict the future.

    There next album should be called “Best Friends Forever”

    • Awesome breakdown, Raptor! But I think Jay Z was always kind of a crass materialist, corporate slave, no? Every one of his songs is like an extended advertisement for name-brand, luxury products. Much of the lyrical content can be boiled down to “I’m very wealthy” or “I was poor but now I am wealthy.” I mean since when did we confuse the guy who’s telling us he’s a “business, man” with Vincent Van Gogh?

      I’m sort of getting a similar feeling of overblown rhetoric about the Kanye West album. The way some of the reviews of Yeezus go, Kanye is like black Nietschze. Kanye is NOT black Nietschze. But that’s OK because art can be good, even brilliant, without being profound. Look at the Ramones. I guess I just missed the point where everyone started believing everything Kanye/Jay-Z were saying about themselves and then echoing it in hyper-intellectual, overblown analysis.

      • Honestly and sincerely, thank you both (and Tom Breihan) for making my day with your posts.

      • Yes, but all the soap-boxing Kanye is doing about how anti-corporate he is, how he’s tired of being a “new slave”, how he’s tired of being an object for the paparazzi, etc. shouldn’t be taken lightly because it’s clearly a message he’s trying to really deliver.

        But…the problem is he’s totally full of shit. HE chose to do endorsements for Nike, Pepsi, etc…HE chose to sign and stick with a major label…HE chose to get a fucking Kardashian pregnant…HE chose to get into a materialistic industry like fashion…the list goes on and on. “Slave” is a really strong word and people should be fucking offended that he’s comparing his “plight” (gimme a break) to the real plight that generations of others actually went through, without any choice.

        No one should be elevating this dude to any level beyond a pretty good rapper who has made some pretty damn good songs (we all know that his new material is made by a team of half the music industry). He compares himself to true industry moguls and revolutionaries like Walt Disney, Steve Jobs, and oh yeah – Jesus (whether you choose to believe in the existence of Jesus or not, you still have to admit how ridiculous it is for Kanye to mutter this shit).

        Kanye believes in his art and he should; he’s an artist. But I – and many others- can’t take him too seriously, considering most of the messaging that seems to come from his heart, and be points of major contention for him is phony cry-baby bullshit. Dude’s trying to fool himself at this point.

      • I feel like abraham touched on the Kanye subject well, so I’ll focus on Jay-Z (since his new album campaign has the Bill Hicks inside of me breathing smoke like a dragon)

        With Jay, I still give him mad respect for dropping The Black Album and “retiring.”

        He put out a bunch of classic songs and then he was out, making money on everything but music, or so it seemed…

        You mention the “business, man” line and I’m glad you did. Because I feel that was the moment on Late Registration when Jay & Ye clicked. Hell, even Ye pointed it out on Graduation that Jay killed it on that verse. It is still a really great line, but that was 2005.

        Then came “Kingdom Come,” which had the double negative of being a shitty album and showing that his “retirement” was never a real thing. That’s when Jay began his decline in my eyes. Once I saw Ye kill it on the Glow In The Dark tour, I put Ye on the proverbial throne and Forgot About Jay.

        If not for Watch The Throne, I feel like I’d still not give a fuck about Jay. I even avoided that album at first, before coming back around and feeling really silly. So that album I feel brought Jay back up to that level he was at pre-Kingdom Come.

        Because “The Blueprint 3″ had its moments, a really great one in the case of “Empire State of Mind”, but nobody really applauded it for being a good album listen. If not for Watch the Throne, I don’t see how ANYBODY could care that he’s putting out a new album at this point. Other commenters have pointed out that he hasn’t put out a good album since “The Black Album” and they’re right.

        At this point I even think Jay knows this. I mean if he was making a new album and legitimately thought it was the greatest thing he’d ever made (his “Magna Carta Holy Grail” if you will) then why would he even bother with this advertising crap? In an alternate universe, I like to think Jay could’ve announced this album, said it was coming out on July 4th (digitally) and called it a day. I think we would’ve collectively flipped shit (which we almost did) about him announcing he had a new album and it was coming out in a few weeks. It worked for MBV. It worked for BoC. Shit, even David Bowie took this approach.

        But… OK. I gotta cut myself off. If I go off on this whole Jay new cell phone album this thing will be twice to thrice the length.

        tl;dr RUN THE JEWELS / BEST FRIENDS FOREVER / EL & MIKE ARE THE FUTURE!

      • Kanye is black Nietzsche.

        That that that that does not destroy me makes me stronger.

  6. I said it before but my god that first track hits HARD.

  7. This shit is dope nasty. El has really been fine-tuning his production and delivery and Killer Mike is just straight slaying.

    So more importantly – which phone company is paying for this album promo? I mean, I find it hard to believe that this thing is getting any press without a corporate sponsor from the mobile device space involved.

  8. Did you guys forget how good just straight up rappity-rap rap could be? Because I completely did, thought that we were past the days where an emcee syncing directly up to the beat and spitting unrelenting intensity was interesting/could be innovative.

    I WAS FUCKING WRONG AND I COULDN’T BE HAPPIER ABOUT IT.

  9. Couldn’t agree more on this one – my favorite hip-hop album of the year so far, I think, and up there in general.

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