Counterbalance: Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels 2

One of 2014's most acclaimed albums is a dense, challenging effort from two wily veterans. Profanities and profundities abound in this week's Counterbalance.
Run the Jewels
Run the Jewels 2
Mass Appeal

Mendelsohn: Confession time, Klinger. For the past six months I’ve been listening to the new album from Run the Jewels nearly nonstop. Remember those weeks when we had to listen to the Violent Femmes, or the Beatles, or Husker Du, or Jefferson Airplane, or Daft Punk, or the Kinks? I was listening to Run the Jewels instead.

That’s a bit of an exaggeration, I did listen to the other records — a little bit — but most of the time, when I was by myself, the kids weren’t in the car, or I was hanging out in the garage making stuff out of wood, Run the Jewels 2 would be on as loud as possible. I am enthralled by this messy, uncouth, unbelievably smart record from the Odd Couple of Hip-Hop. Don’t get me wrong, it isn’t perfect, but for my money it is pretty damn close.

For the uninitiated, Run the Jewels is made up of rapper/producer El-P and rapper Killer Mike. Klinger, you might remember Killer Mike from his debut on “Snappin’ and Trappin” off of Outkast’s Stankonia. If my memory servers correctly, you were not high on that song and I was inclined to agree. However, in the intervening years, Killer Mike has found his voice and built a respectable career behind the microphone, reinventing a faltering mainstream hip hop career with a DIY hustle work ethic that eventually led him to crossing paths with El-P.

El-P got his start in New York in the mid-’90s and helped co-found the Definitive Jux record label, home to some critically acclaimed artists who fell on the more esoteric part of the hip hop spectrum. The label was put on hiatus on 2010, and El-P faced the same need to restart a faltering career. El-P was brought on to produce a couple of tracks from Killer Mike’s 2012 record R.A.P. Music. After working together, Killer Mike convinced El-P to produce the whole record. From there, it was an easy step pushing the collaboration to its logical conclusion: more music. Killer Mike and El-P, both 39 years old, have now made three albums together and are experiencing a renaissance of sorts as Run the Jewels 2 has been racking up critical acclaim and landing the duo in front of ever-increasing audiences.

What do you think, Klinger? There are a lot of different ways to come at this record. What jumps out at you?

Klinger: I really can’t say. Right now the main thing that jumps out at me is a throbbing, pulsating bass that I usually only hear in the car next to me at red lights. So my initial response is something close to bafflement as I try to make out Killer Mike’s lyrics. I’m only about seven years older than these two guys, but I’m feeling like a character out of present-day Funky Winkerbean right now with my need to complain about my high-end hearing loss. Since I haven’t had the benefit of weeks of listening to this album, I’m going to need some more time to process everything.

I can say without fear of contradiction that it’s highly unlikely that I’ll be returning to Run the Jewels 2 once this week is over — unless, of course, we figure out some way in. You’ve given me their credentials and walked me through everything here, and my own research into the duo’s backstory suggests that they are certainly more than deserving of their current acclaim, but I’m still trying to connect with the high-intensity pressure that’s infused throughout nearly every minute of this album. So help, me out here, Mendelsohn: what’s in Run the Jewels for a middle-aged man?

Mendelsohn: I’m not surprised by your response. Coming into Run the Jewels without a little previous knowledge can be a little daunting and I feel bad dropping this bomb of a record in your lap. (As opposed to a few weeks ago when I made you listen to Tears For Fears and I said I was sorry, but I really wasn’t). I spent a lot of time listening to artist from the Def Jux roster when I was in college. I found artists like Aesop Rock, RJD2, Murs, Del tha Funky Homosapien to be much more interesting than the mainstream hip hop. They had a wider range of influences, leaning heavily on soul samples and slightly avant grade beats to provide the foundation for a dense, thought-provoking, lyricism. But then, there was a reason why most of those artists never made it out of the underground. Cannibal Ox is the only Def Jux alum with a record in the top 1000 on the Great List: 2001’s The Cold Vein, at no. 906.

On the flip side, the gangsterism of mainstream hip hop always struck me as a little vapid: all style and no substance. These days it appears that all mainstream music, even hip hop, seems to be moving toward the pop center. Run the Jewels offers something a little different, harkening back to the days of classic hip hop while making the most of a DIY work ethic that helped propel punk, new wave and indie rock out of the underground and into the light.

Run the Jewels have managed to combine the best aspects of the intellectualism that defined Def Jux with the heavy-handed braggadocio and flash of nearly three decades of rap heritage. If you want to talk about synthesis of modern music onto one record, I think Mike and El-P have succeeded by creating this abrasive masterpiece. Musically, socially, and lyrically, this record is nearly all-encompassing. While it is mostly hip hop, there are nods to rock, pop, jazz and punk. Thematically, the record vacillates between social consciousness to rival Marvin Gaye back to violent imagery that might make the old school rappers blush a little, especially those now starring in family films. If I had to over simplify an examination of this record it would be this: Run the Jewels is Public Enemy for the new generation. More so Fear of a Black Planet than It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, but only because the Bomb Squads’ production got much denser on the former album.

Klinger: OK, I was definitely thinking Public Enemy as I was listening, if only because of the density of the production, like you said, and the fact that Public Enemy’s choice of sounds were purposefully chosen to reflect the notion that many people felt hip-hop was just noise. We’ll show them what noise means, Chuck D was saying, and I obviously hear that here. And I can certainly hear glimpses into the social commentary you’re referring to, especially in a song like “Early”, which takes the experiences that most people generally consider from a sociopolitical perspective and makes it very personal and very human. That’s powerful.

Mendelsohn: It is exceptionally powerful, especially when you consider the recent spate of police violence. “Early” is simply detailing the facts of everyday life for two very similar, unconnected individuals with one minor difference: one is black and one is white. Both of them deal with the existential horror of reality, while fighting for control of their lives. Mike speaks bluntly about dealing with the police as a black man and his fight against “the man”. El-P takes to the fight to the man making note of the surveillance culture that only looks one way. Ten years ago, his lyrics would have been conspiracy theory; now, they are just the reality we all deal with. In the end, the narratives of the song intersect as El-P hears the gunshots from a police shooting a couple blocks away. “Early” is a great example, but there little bits of truth spread throughout Run the Jewels 2. One minute its all, “You punks is pussy proverbial pansy panty holders,” the next it’s “Any cow that is sacred will get defaced. Like any tyrant murdered gets replaced.”

Klinger: It’s no surprise to me that Run the Jewels 2 is receiving the accolades its receiving, especially given the various pedigrees involved here. I do have to wonder, though, whether all this braggadocio is a throwback, or something of a self-aware pose. It’s nearly impossible to believe that it’s meant to be taken at face value, given that everyone involved here is steeped in the traditions of hip-hop — and as such aware of the excesses. This almost sounds (and this isn’t necessarily a criticism) like the hip-hop equivalent of indie rockers striking an arena-rock pose. No matter how convincingly the band might depict the mustaches and satin jackets of 1982 REO Speedwagon, they’re still clearly aware of the inherent meta of the whole thing. Forgive me if I’m way off base here, Mendelsohn. Like I said, I’m still feeling my way through this.

Mendelsohn: I think that’s the best thing about Run the Jewels 2 is that it is dead serious at various points, unwilling to pull punches and uncomfortably honest. While “Early” may be a bit more accessible, thanks to the pop flourishes form BOOTS, the tale Mike lays out on “Crown” is incredibly personal as he reflects upon his time as a drug dealer and wrestles with the guilt of selling cocaine to a pregnant woman, wondering what effect it might have had on the unborn child. That level of introspection is unprecedented in a genre that is mostly interested in flipping units for quick cash. Thankfully, Run the Jewels 2 isn’t all soul searching and philosophical quandary. The rest of the time, we get treated to a record full of top notch beats and two rappers excelling at their art. Mike’s flow is light and powerful: a ballerina grizzly bear, nimbly wreaking havoc. El-P is dense and nearly indecipherable as he lets loose with rapid fire bars. Through it all, they keep it funny, a tongue-in-cheek send up of everything they can get their hands on. They shoot insults like Don Rickles and wax poetic like William Shakespeare (if he was forced to keep it under 140 characters). There are so many levels to the word play and the production. The further you dig, the more you find, the more the meanings change and it makes me wonder: is it art imitating life? Or life imitating art?

Klinger: I guess in the end, I’m not sure it matters. Maybe all art is life imitating art imitating life.

Run the Jewels 2 topped PopMatters’ “Best Albums of 2014” list last December.