A bluesy howl of addictive beats, political fury, and hypnotic technique, the sequel to Run the Jewels' triumphant debut bests the original in every way.
Nobody doubted that Killer Mike and El-P would make a good team. Both are underground veterans from cities -- Atlanta and New York, respectively -- where indie hip-hop has had to fight to be heard over their behemoth major label counterparts, and both have made jaded dystopian anger their pose of choice. Michael Render handpicked El, née Jaime Meline, to produce 2012’s R.A.P. Music, and was as immediately at home in Meline’s Teenage-Mutant-Ninja-Basquiat sound-world as he ever was with the soulful trap of his early solo records.
Still, the pairing was not necessarily a no-brainer. R.A.P. Music was every bit Killer Mike’s album, with El-P dutifully behind the boards and a full-on creative collaboration between the two yet untested. Their common ground of macabre world-weariness is a somewhat recent development, especially for El, whose outer-space aesthetic has gravitated in his solo career to something more grounded and forthright. Ten or 15 years ago, though, Meline and Render were not so much incompatible as simply occupying separate realms. Company Flow and Cannibal Ox, the short-lived but legendary alt-rap projects that defined El-P’s early career, extracted the wintry violence of Ready to Die and Illmatic and filtered it through vaguely futuristic dread, with a touch of surrealism and gallows humor.
Killer Mike meanwhile tended towards the blunt, austere house style of grassroots hip-hop. Even as an associate of the Dungeon Family, the regional collective that arguably made Atlanta the convergence point of street cred and left-field dandyism, Mike kept things simple and direct. It was a deceptive simplicity -- before R.A.P. Music, he specialized in dropping real knowledge over ignorant, trunk-bass beats and the occasional chipmunk choir -- but even at his most expansively demagogic, he scanned as a hometown hero for life, the kind who might dismiss alt-rap’s avant-gardism as alienating and flippant. As if acknowledging the risk of their differences, Run the Jewels planned their first project as a mixtape, hip-hop’s low-stakes format par excellence.
Nobody expected that mixtape to hit as hard as it did. Their explosive chemistry delivered what should have been a collection of alike but discrete elements as a thoroughly bonded punch to the gut. As other critics have noted, their second release in as many years does away with any mixtape pretenses, and is even more forceful and cohesive than its predecessor. Run the Jewels 2 bursts forth like contents under pressure with Mike’s shouted admonition to "bang this bitch the fuck out," as if waiting a whole year to follow up was just a formality.
In every way the sequel bests the original. The rhymes are more devastating. The beats are more addictive. The entire package is more unrelentingly forceful. Over the course of just under 40 minutes RTJ2 barely pauses to breathe, with each track segueing impatiently into the next and none running over four minutes. More to the point, both MCs are on top of their game here, spitting more urgently than either ever has. Killer Mike in particular delivers a verbal assault of braggadocio and political fury with an effortlessly athletic cadence of the sort undervalued among their younger competitors. RTJ2 is the kind of high-impact experience that ropes Album of the Year accolades after a week on the market, which it has, and fully deserves.
If Mike and El’s mutual differences have had any noticeable effect, it has been to complement each other. The former’s didacticism is tempered by the latter’s dour sense of the absurd, and vice versa. Although they both skew conscious lyrically, Mike is the evangelist between them, but Run the Jewels favors his storytelling over his more sermonizing whims. El’s production seems in part responsible for this. His beats are melodic, layered, and often partitioned into rhythmically distinct segments, embracing the dynamism of rock over the structural minimalism inherent to hip-hop. (Not incidentally, two ambassadors of the rock world, Zac de la Rocha and Travis Barker, feature on RTJ2.) This song-oriented approach encourages the ebb and flow of narration rather than a sermon’s sustained diction.
Consider "Early", during which both rappers confess, "It be feelin’ like the life that I’m livin’ man, I don’t control." Mike leads off with a brief but vivid and all-too-familiar tale of getting cuffed by cops for murky reasons in front of his wife and son. In this short verse, he achieves every bit of the quiet authority and frankness of his recent TV appearances vis-à-vis the killing of Michael Brown. His exhausted claim to "respect the badge and the gun" echoes an exhaustive preamble on Fox News concerning his clean record and close ties with law enforcement; in both cases, he knows that as a black man, he is guilty until proven innocent.
For his part, El conveys a more hermetic sense of despair. He insists the world is turned by a shadowy "they", and mourns that this belief earns him the accusation of having "lost the plot". By the end, though, in an image recalling the overheard domestic abuse in "For My Upstairs Neighbor (Mum’s the Word)" from El-P’s Cancer 4 Cure, he witnesses the tussle between Mike and the police, and confesses to complacency. It’s a subtle epiphany: in a critique of his own fondness of conspiracy theories, El realizes he can only do so at least in part from safety of his own whiteness.
RTJ2 is filled with such thoughtful, penetrating moments, tightly wound up in 11 bona fide bangers. It’s a rare collaborative effort that works just as well for newcomers to either contributor as for longtime fans tracking their artistic progress. And progress they do: the voice of reason/oracle set-up plays to Killer Mike’s and El-P’s strengths, respectively, while also pushing them as performers. If the album has any shortcomings at all, it’s that El seems to have settled into a holding pattern as a producer. Make no mistake: his hard-driving, hypnotic melodicism, with dirty guitars and agitated organs adding a bluesy howl to the Detroit techno-by-way-of-Eric B. grime, is in the best shape of its life. If Run the Jewels’ sound resumed as is for RTJ3, it too would be an instant triumph. But it’s a sound that all-too-easily traces back to El-P at this point. Now that the bar is set so high, it’s hard not to want to continue being surprised by Run the Jewels.