The third collaborative album from ATL’s most insightful shit talker, Killer Mike, and Brooklyn’s otherwordly underground producer/rapper, El-P, is their strongest yet—and one of the year’s best releases.
El-P was first brought to Killer Mike's studio to commission a beat, or two, for Mike’s R.A.P. Music. This was 2011, and Adult Swim creative director Jason DeMarco, the mutual connection, couldn't have possibly foreseen the two-headed beast he just spawned. By the end of the session, Mike knew he’d found the sole producer for his next album. Coming from two very different hip-hop traditions, a rare chemistry, intuitive from the very start, was channeled that day. They had ideas they could only achieve with each other. Soon after, Killer Mike laid a verse on Cancer 4 Cure (El's last solo album), released in May 2012, a week after R.A.P. Music. A year later, the two announced their official partnership as Run the Jewels.
R.A.P. Music, the acronym standing for Rebellious African People, was an angry, personal, fuck-the-system record from a veteran more confident than he'd ever been. Politically, it’s one of the most astute albums we’ve heard in years, though Mike's relentless visions couldn’t have been reached without El-P’s doomsday production. Run The Jewels #1 was a little different. First off, it had both men rapping-- Mike, loud and proud, never mincing words, alongside El’s sudden introversions into insanity, somehow never breaking a sweat. Though just as brazen, RTJ ditched any political agenda for a shit-talking, tag-team suckerpunch. It was about showing off the charisma of two self-assured legends. Rarely has a tandem so different, yet so complementary, put out such a convincing formula.
RTJ2 has more of the real, institutional unrest that sparked R.A.P. Music-- as a sign of the times, this should be no surprise. Still, this is their most fun record yet— and this fact, too, shows the evolution of their artistic chemistry and budding friendship. All in all, it’s a record that proves Killer Mike and El-P are making their best, most ambitious work together right now as Run the Jewels. As both 39-year-olds have been putting out critically acclaimed (and commercially under-appreciated) records for over a decade— that’s a bold claim.
Mike and El know their fans are going into RTJ2 expecting the unexpected. Whatever it is—a treatise on a post-Armageddon war zone or just one big, marijuana-fueled piss-take, it’ll be the weird brainchild of two of the most ballsy characters in the game (and it’ll be loud as fuck). The album starts on “Jeopardy” with just Mike, bellowing, “I’m finna bang this bitch the fuck out!” Indeed. A lurching, ominous bassline surrounds you as Mike raps his way to the center of the terrordome, about to burst into flames at any second. Anything tongue-in-cheek is spat with a mouthful of blood: “Fuck you fuckboys forever, I hope I said it politely / And that’s about the psyche of Jaime and Mikey.” As darkroom horns swell in and out of distortion, El (Jaime) enters the frame, letting you catch your breath—but not for more than a second. El is the more anonymous of the two on most of these tracks--the unsuspecting white kid who’ll run your pockets while big Mike taunts you into a corner. He’s happy to play the underdog, though; he knows his chops are unfuckwithable: “I’ve never been much of shit, by most measurements don’t exist / On the radar of a little blip in the shadow of the mothership.” Even at his most self-deprecating, he raps like he’ll kick your ass.
RTJ is better than R.A.P. Music because of El-P’s rapping presence. Not only that, he makes Mike better (and vice versa). The two go back and forth, cutting each other off, like they’re playing a sadistic game of rap H-O-R-S-E (without really ever insulting each others’ skills). When competing, though, there’s an underlying friendship— something we couldn't even see on Watch the Throne (not taking anything away from two of rap’s greatest) . Through the constant one-upsmanship, it’s their collective “fuck you’s” that keep ringing and stinging.
It’s Mike and El trading blows for 39 minutes, with a few peculiar guest spots, including two nearly washed-up rockers, Zack de la Rocha and Travis Barker. At a glance, these might seem to be two half-baked selections from Mike and El, but the collaborations work surprisingly well. “All Due Respect” makes you think the lone Blink-182 cool guy should’ve been drumming on rap records way earlier in his career. “Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck)”— yes, a torture chamber for all you fuckboys— starts with de la Rocha yapping “Run them jewels fast” on repeat. El samples that, and turns Rocha's cut-up voice into the album's most energetic beat. De la Rocha ends up closing the track with a verse of his own, which, though nothing to scoff at, underwhelms after the Jewels’ swagger assault. The above guest spots make sense considering many of El’s beats have a metal (mental) quality about them. The attitude’s all heavy metal, anyway. The production’s often more rage-worthy in its static minimalism than through any grandiose riffage— more akin to the evil side of noise music.
Even at its weirdest, though, it all bumps along with some familiar ATL Dungeon funk. "Lie, Cheat, Steal," the album's centerpiece, starts with El rapping over a beat that could’ve been featured on Stankonia. You want him to keep going, but the chorus segues into a demented playground sing-song, with Mike instructing the kids to “Lie, cheat, steal.” This transition echoes the type of suite-style progressions utilized on MBDTF, but the Mike and El show is more like double-feature night at the grindhouse.
They’re not here to tell you everything’s gonna be okay. And they’re not willing to be the poster boys for your flavor-of-the-month revolution. They’re fringe voices living on a planet turned upside down, using all the chaos as inspiration. Whatever oppressive force daunts the horizon, these two, “the type that beat the preacher with a grin and a gun,” are going down having the time of their lives. Now that they’ve found a platform, they’re gonna yell while they can.