Jul 1, 2013

Music Review: "Run the Jewels" by Run the Jewels

By Ian Cory

In my review of The Uncluded’s Hokey Fright, I talked briefly about the appeal of the collaborative album, and how such albums tend to put critics and pop culture analysts into a bit of a tizzy. Collaborative records often feel like the colliding of two separate planets, and we gather at the side lines to determine what parts of which artist have bled into the others sensibilities, or where the two have built a common ground. The dual MC album, a classic hip-hop tradition, has had a pretty serious resurgence in the last few years. Even if we haven’t actually seen an increase in releases, the public’s interest in these kind of collaborations have exploded. It seems like every week we have a new rapper promising a split album with a colleague, so it’s pretty refreshing that Brooklyn’s El-P and Atlanta’s Killer Mike have come through with Run The Jewels. Building off of their work together last year on Killer Mike’s R.A.P. Music this 10-song album is not a reach across the aisle from Southern rap to the so-called abstract hip hop scene, nor is it rap’s equivalent to ‘Ebony and Ivory’. No, Run The Jewels is a case of two of raps most brazen individualists bonding over their equal ability to wreck your shit.

What stands out most about Run The Jewels is its immediacy. At 33 minutes, over the course of 10 tracks, this record moves quickly. Each song either finds both rappers trading groups of 8 bars or stretching out for a single long form verse, usually with one hook separating the two, and one to close the song off. Even the endings of the tracks tend to dovetail nicely into the beginning of the subsequent track, giving this record a rolling momentum that builds to the slower and more deliberately paced closing track. Given the short running time of the songs, ranging from 2:52 to 4:22, El-P keeps the production focused, jettisoning the more elaborate beat changes from his last solo record Cancer 4 Cure but keeping all of the dense and layered elements that make his work so distinctive. As always, El-P draws heavily from the boom-bap tradition, but warps it with more jittery percussion, a thicker analog synthesized low end and a screeching high-end that draws equally from the Bomb Squad as Nine Inch Nails. These beats hit hard and fast, only allowing the suggestion of melody at key moments, like the spooky “Job Well Done” or the psychedelic “No Come Down”.

While the production is one of the album’s strengths, the focus is on the interplay between the two MCs. Usually when such strong performers share this much space, there’s an inclination to tally the score and determine who “won”, but what’s striking about Run The Jewels is how tightly knit El-P and Killer Mike are as a team. The two have some obvious differences in their styles, some of which can be attributed to Killer Mike’s preference for freestyling versus El-P’s written approach, but both are willing to adjust in order to keep the energy high. During the quicker tunes, like the opening title track, El-P sacrifices his off kilter bar line manipulation for a lightening fast double time, and on “Twin Hype Back” Killer Mike draws on some of the internal alliteration that his partner is so fond of. The high level of teamwork makes this record feel like a buddy-crime movie. Where the two do seem to compete is in their lyrics, where each tries to top the other in cartoonish violence and gut busting punch lines. But when they aren’t shooting poodles in the face or taking shrooms with strippers they find the time to detail how the music industry is stacked against younger rappers and how those hoping to emulate the drug dealer turned superstar career of Jay-Z will find more jailtime than record deals. These more level headed moments don’t sound drastically different than the more brash content because both El-P and Killer Mike are rappers that always sound like themselves, carrying a distinct point of view with them to every subject they address.

A record as aggressive and fast paced as Run The Jewels isn’t usually described as heartwarming, but there’s an undeniable charm to the way these two work together. Even while laying waste to his own competition, Killer Mike makes sure to note that no other producer can match El-P’s beats, and even goes so far to compare the duo to The Avengers. While they strike me more similar to the Cable & Deadpool* team ups, I’d love to see this excellent tag team reach the kind of widespread success of the world’s currently most beloved superhero franchise. As we find ourselves in between major releases from hip-hop’s dark knight and its reigning Superman**, don’t let this gem slip through the cracks.

Grade: A-

*Killer Mike=Cable, El-P=Deadpool.

**I doubt I need to spell this one out, but just in case: Batman=Kanye, Superman=Jay-Z. I will be reviewing Magna Carta Holy Grail next week. Here’s hoping its better than Man Of Steel

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