I don’t know how this is even possible, but Run The Jewels are getting better. They were already a mean motherfucking machine last year, when Killer Mike and El-P got together for their self-titled RTJ debut. These two guys, with vastly different backgrounds but similar mentalities and complementary visions, had somehow found each other. They’d figured out that what the world needed was a hard, merciless, frill-free 40-minute shit-talking monster of an album, and they delivered it. Mike and El had no greater purpose on that first album. They just wanted to let you know, in exquisite detail, how happy they would be to slap your face off your skull. Now, a year and a half later, they’re back again, still cracking bones with their teeth. And they’ve expanded things, talking about a few things beyond the whole I’m-the-shit thing, while still letting you know, on no uncertain terms, that they are the shit. RTJ2 is as hard and blunt and all-crushing as their debut, but it’s bigger and deeper and prettier. They’re a meaner motherfucking machine now, and there’s a very good chance that RTJ2 is the best album anyone will release in 2014, in any genre. (As with the first album, RTJ2 is a free download, which would normally put it into Mixtape Of The Week contention. But you can buy it, if you want, which complicates things. And anyway, these guys are calling it an album, and I don’t want these guys mad at me.)
It’s hard to even talk about what RTJ2 does well because it feels so immediate and distinctive. This is clothesline-a-stranger music, music for when you’re in the mood to tear a Honda Civic in half with your bare hands. It’s break-a-window-with-your-own-face-for-no-reason music. It opens with Killer Mike roaring, “I’M FINNA BANG THIS BITCH THE FUCK OUT,” in one of the all-time great album intros. And even though it covers a lot of aesthetic ground, it doesn’t let up until the late Mars Volta member Ikey Owens gets done playing a damaged free-jazz piano solo over El-P’s seismic bass-bursts 40 minutes later. There are intricately worded, painstakingly assembled moments of shit-talk here so perfectly knuckleheaded that I want to tattoo them on the inside of my eyeballs. Mike, 47 seconds into track one: “I’m putting pistols in places at random places / Like, ‘Bitch, give it up or stand adjacent to Satan’.” Mike, 40 seconds later: “Fuck you fuckboys forever, hope I said it politely / And that’s about the psyche of Jamie and Mikey.” El, about one minute after that: “Motherfuck your permission / It was never yours to begin with / And every bar of that bitch shit you spit is your fucking prison.” And that’s how it goes, hammberblow after lyrical hammerblow until the album is over and you are left quaking and muttering to yourself.
But even though the album’s aggression level is thundering and all-consuming and impossible to shake, it’s not the only thing going on. For one thing, the beats are slower and more deliberate and heavily orchestrated than they were on the last album, though they’re just as busy and damaging. El has mined deeper into the sound he was working on his Cancer For Cure solo album two years ago: A degraded frag-grenade version of late-’90s techno. There are guest musicians here, and they’re fleshing out his already-substantial drum-storms. Beyond that (great) Ikey Owens solo, there’s Police Academy sound-effects master Michael Winslow doing robot voices on “Oh My Darling Don’t Cry,” Chavez’s Matt Sweeney’s scraped-out guitar sand thickening up “All My Life,” Yo La Tengo’s James McNew adding to the bass-wobble on “Early.” It’s going to be hard to make fun of Travis Barker ever again after hearing him drop bombs all over “All Due Respect.” But all these musicians, great as they are, are supporting players, there to help build the chaotic storm of El’s production. The sound of RTJ2 is severe auteur shit — all these different ripples and details and little things going on but everything existing to serve the same fundamental bang. These tracks are all tension and all release, both somehow happening at the same time. El-P has done amazing things with beat machines before, but RTJ2 is, to date, his musical masterwork. And I can’t imagine it’ll be a musically influential piece of work, great as it is, because who the fuck could equal this? Who even has the tools, let alone the vision? I just picture other rap producers listening, shaking their heads, and saying to themselves, “Jesus, I wish I could do that.”
That fleshed-out quality extends to the rapping, too. For one thing, the guest raps, even though there are only two of them, are actually a presence here. That first Run The Jewels album felt like two guys in a room together, pushing each other to run louder. Back then, when Big Boi showed up on “Banana Clipper,” his verse felt semi-awkwardly stapled-on, even though Big Boi’s shown serious on-record chemistry with Killer Mike over the years. The Run The Jewels of last year was a closed circle, and Big Boi was, on some level, an interloper. By contrast, when Zack De La Rocha bursts in on “Close Your Eyes (And Count To Fuck),” he keys into exactly what this group is doing, using his feverish big-room bark to deliver the most insanely late-’90s backpack-rap lyrics I’ve heard in years. He’s miles ahead of you! You could sip his Bitches Brew! That “Philip A.K. Dickin’ you” line is some sort of reality-bent triple-pun, and I can’t believe it exists. De La Rocha’s sampled, stuttering voice makes a great hook for the song, too. Meanwhile, when the Three 6 Mafia veteran Gangsta Boo turns up on “Love Again (Akinyele Back),” she provides a crucial service, spinning a sex-rap on its head and giving a female perspective livelier and more forceful than what either of the two dudes brings. When an album is big enough to comfortably include the voices of both Zack De La Rocha and Gangsta Boo, it’s pitching a pretty big tent.
As for Mike and El, as rappers, they continue to be great influences on each other, pushing each other to hit higher plateaus. Once upon a time, El’s rapping bothered the shit out of me, since I didn’t think he could ever find the beat. Throughout RTJ2, his cadences stay firmly in the pocket, and when he speeds into a burst of doubletime, it feels natural and effortless. He’s having fun with his vivid, byzantine shit-talk: “You can all run backwards through a field of dicks.” But he’s also gone back to talking about surveillance-state politics and gulfs of inequality, things that have been favorite topics of his for years but which weren’t really there on the last album. He’s concerned with the macro, with the idea that we are trying to ignore a terrifying world that’s destroying people around us. “Can’t relate to your First World struggles,” he snarls on “All Due Respect.” “You want safety, hugs and cuddles / IEDs will leave bloody puddles.” But he’s also relaxed enough to sound like a human being sometimes. Even five years ago, it would’ve been hard to imagine El rapping straightforwardly about blissful sex with his girlfriend, but then there he is on “Love Again”: “I say take your shit off, I’m not playing, bae.”
Meanwhile, Killer Mike is a better rapper than he’s ever been, and he’s always been great. His voice is a klaxon, cutting through everything around it. He brays and he growls and he testifies, but his delivery still has a playful little purr in it. You can hear his smile. Even when he’s demanding your money or telling you to kill cops, he’s having fun with it. Mike spends most of the album establishing himself as being, without question, the wrong man to fuck with. And when he’s on his all-out rage shit, he is a ferocious force: “We killing them for freedom cuz they tortured us for boredom / And even if some good ones die, fuck it, the Lord’ll sort ‘em.” But late in the album, he digs deep into personal experience and delivers two searing storytelling verses that might be the best things he’s ever done.
On “Early,” he lays out a scenario: A cop frisks him for no reason, finds some weed. He pleads, respectfully, for just a warning. The cop doesn’t listen, cuffs him in front of his wife and kid. His family gets upset, and things spiral quickly out of control while he watches helplessly from the back of a squad car. There are all these telling little details in that one, like the way he shows a deep love for his family just by the words he uses to describe them (“my beautiful son,” “my gorgeous queen”). But when it’s all over, you’re left there sitting with him in the back of that police car, head spinning, wondering what the fuck just happened. Then, on “Crown,” he implicates himself just as intensely as he implicates the cop on “Early.” He tells a story about his younger days, selling crack to a pregnant woman and knowing it was wrong: “I’m guilty, I reckon, cuz I hear that good shit can hurt baby’s brains / Heard he was normal til three and then he stopped talking, since then ain’t nothin been the same.” He finds her, years later, and tries to beg for forgiveness. He’s not hearing it. She’s found Jesus, and she’s at peace with whatever happened, but he’s left in turmoil. And after hearing him, so are you. And that’s RTJ2 for you: An album that’ll punch you in your shit and leave your soul reeling.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Taylor Swift’s impeccably sparkling declaration of pop dominance 1989.
• At The Gates’ triumphant reunion album At War With Reality.
• The Flaming Lips’ full-length Sgt. Pepper’s cover With A Little Help From My Fwends.
• Rancid’s heartening punk rock return Honor Is All We Know.
• The Twilight Sad’s glum, towering Nobody Wants To Be Here And Nobody Wants To Leave.
• Yusuf Islam’s guest-heavy, Rick Rubin-produced Tell ‘Em I’m Gone.
• Restorations’ warm, grizzled punker LP3.
• Pianos Become The Teeth’s expansive post-hardcore album Keep You.
• HAERTS’ lush self-titled pop debut.
• Medicine’s second reunion effort Home Everywhere.
• Dawnbringer’s trad-metal attack Night Of The Hammer.
• Japanese instrumentalists MONO’s twin albums The Last Dawn and Rays Of Darkness.
• Stalley’s major-label conscious-rap debut Ohio.
• Black Milk’s mad-scientist rap opus If There’s A Hell Beow.
• I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness’ grand reawakening Dust.
• Chicago drill producer Young Chop’s all-collabs Still.
• French For Rabbits’ ethereal chamber-pop debut Spirits.
• His Name Is Alive’s eerie rock opera Tecuciztecatl.
• Ex Cops’ smooth, glamorous dark-pop album Daggers.
• Giant Squid’s dark, proggy cello opus Minoans.
• VLMA’s self-titled garage rocker.
• Veronica Falls/Mazes side project Ultimate Painting’s self titled debut.
• Former Queen Of The Stone Age Nick Oliveri’s solo effort Leave Me Alone.
• Ugly Hussy’s operatic instrumental album Host.
• Shoegazey Deafheaven offshoot Creepers’ debut Lush.
• Mysteries’ ambient synthpopper New Age Music.
• Daniel Lanois’ solo album Flesh And Machine.
• The Who’s Who Hits 50! compilation.
• Ought’s Once More With Feeling… EP.
• Line & Circle’s self-titled EP.
• The Tropics’ Wind House EP.
• Paula Temple’s Deathvox EP.
• How To Dress Well’s “What Is This Heart?” Remixes EP.