“This is as good as it gets.”
Six years ago, El-P was authoring “Drones Over Brooklyn”—a disturbingly accurate depiction of how 2017 has unfolded so far. The native New Yorker embodies a pessimistic world view that seeps into his music—“We all dead, fuck it!” is among his most memorable quotes on 2014’s Run The Jewels 2.
But for one night, El-P and Killer Mike were invincible. Tucked away in New York’s theater district at Terminal 5, they were free from the politics and the music industry. Instead, they were surrounded by a sold-out crowd, their hand-picked tour mates and for El-P, a fleet of friends and family (including André 3000) that have watched his group blossom into the most formidable rap duo of the decade.
Run The Jewels took the stage to Queen’s “We Are the Champions,” declaring victory before they went to battle, true to their delightfully tacky and unapologetic brand (as their tour posters would indicate). Rapping about fantastical robberies and high-speed car chases through Manhattan, RTJ is the ‘80s action flick of rap. Their style is remastered for the 21st century, uniquely armed with age, wisdom and a no-fucks-given aura of invincibility.
After blazing through their first three tracks, including RTJ3 standouts “Talk to Me” and “Legend Has It,” Killer Mike finally forced the humble El-P to acknowledge his return home. “This is as good as it gets,” he told the crowd, hiding his emotion behind his signature Ray Bans. As the crowd chanted “El-P! El-P! El-P!” the veteran emcee and producer wiped tears from under his shades before giving Mike a big bear hug. “Make me look good,” he pleaded with the crowd, just as if he was performing at a school talent show in front of his parents.
The show took a humorous turn during “Love Again”—the closest thing to a “ballad” in the Run the Jewels catalog— when the duo welcomed special guest Gangsta Boo. The song's obnoxiously raunchy hook was a good laugh for everyone in the building except for El-P, who remembered he had to sing along to the Gangsta Boo hook with his mom in attendance. “P*ssy is power y’all!” Gangsta Boo would yell as she exited the stage, and the show finally took the political turn we were all waiting for.
It’s been a weird few months in New York City. The ominous, orange cloud is ever-present. Even on days when a protest hasn’t altered your commute, you’ll see anti-Trump graffiti on the way home. Since November, New York has become a dim light in a growing shadow of hatred and xenophobia, but the weight of the unknown future has already taken its toll. A sense of dread permeates, strong enough to add weight to the bathroom scale (or at least that’s what I tell myself).
Run The Jewels has been rap’s antidote to this dread. Politics are ever-present, but as the gold-plated RTJ3 logo indicates, these politics encourage bravery and self-empowerment amidst turmoil. They embrace their flaws but aren’t afraid to tell you how great they are in the most creative of ways. “RTJ is the new PB&J…we dropped a classic today,” Mike declares on RTJ3.
It would have been easy for RTJ to cater to cliché anti-Trump chants tonight; the crowd certainly would have obliged (and they appropriately started their own “Fuck Donald Trump!” chants before “Lie, Cheat, Steal”), but the duo, who essentially made an “I told you so” album with RTJ3, are smarter than that. After performing “Report to the Shareholders,” a record that speaks on the possibility of war, the two defiantly raised their fists in the air as El-P delivered his most important message of the night.
“Look around you…I’ve realized shit isn’t all that bad.” Mind you, this is the guy who predicted a fascist government five years ago. “We are not alone.”
“They will not win.”
Anyone looking at the 5,000 people crammed into the venue, and the 15,000 more who would see them over the next three sold-out nights (El-P said they turned down a fifth show) couldn’t say he was wrong.
Run The Jewels started their journey as a duo with a verse about robbing a woman for jewelry and shooting her pet dog in the process. As aggressive as their music is, though, their authentic friendship and love for one another—something so rare between partners in the music industry—balance out the confrontational (but necessary) tone of their music.
The double encore, which started with the in-your-face “Close Your Eyes (And Count To Fuck),” ended surprisingly with “Down,” perhaps their “softest” and most vulnerable track to date. Mike raps about how close he was to death; El-P closes with “we’re gonna need more hope boys, on the double.” Instead of bringing down the roof with leftover bangers, the duo issued a send-off message, offering their audience one final warning before ultimately parting ways.
Stepping out into the unusually warm New York night, Run The Jewels fans had laughed, cried and felt empowered and loved, but it was the preparation for dreary days ahead that made the most lasting impact.
El-P deserves more credit for all his has given to hip-hop. At 41, his inverted career path might not have played out as he planned, but it has had a purpose. El-P returned to New York for more than a hometown show—this was the culmination of a six-year journey that started when he first met Killer Mike.
His music drips with the lessons he’s learned, the friendships he’s made, and his worldview. El-P walked into Terminal 5 last week at the peak of his career to deliver a powerful message of hope from a once-relentlessly pessimistic soul.
By Ryan Alfieri. Follow him on Twitter.
Photo Credits: Peter Hutchins