Photo by Kenny Sun
Over a year ago, Killer Mike and El-P delivered their Run the Jewels album and fucked shit the fuck up. Fuccbois knew the combination wasn't healthy. They took getting left off your fuck list personal. They did dope, fucked hope. In an era when maybe-kind-of-mentioning-someone-in-a-song-but-not-really counted as beef, Run the Jewels grabbed the industry by its backpack, took its lunch money, bought an ice-cream sandwich with that money, then sat down at the industry's table and slowly ate it in front of them, daring them to do something about it.
No one dared do anything about it.
Run the Jewels wasn't just a breath of fresh air for hip-hop heads of a certain persuasion, it was a slap in the face. Hearing Run the Jewels was a reminder that yes, while Killer Mike may not make it onto those "Top 50 Rapper" listicles, bar for bar, verse for verse, song for song, who's really fucking with Michael Render on the mic? It was a reminder that while every rapper now claims to give no fucks, El-P was giving no fucks before those rappers even knew what a fuck was. This wasn't that "you doubted us and now we're famous take that" rap, this was riverdance cleats on your face for the finisher rap.
I was one of those kids that learned the art of the apocalypse from El-P during the Def Jux era, and so hearing him find his musical peanut butter and jelly (if peanut butter and jelly smoked a pack a day) in Killer Mike was everything I always wanted from hip-hop but couldn't imagine enough to wish for. So yes, word that the two were back in the studio recording a new project was the best news of 2014.
And then last Friday, like a musical drone strike, without warning and from the sky, Run the Jewels 2 exploded into our headphones. I'll admit it - before I listened for the first time I was nervous. Not because I was worried about quality, there aren't many people in music I have more faith in than Mike and El, but because what if it was only fucking awesome instead of the "I don't even know if the human brain is capable of comprehending the level of awesome" I was hoping for? What then? It might kill me to come that close to my dreams and not touch it. And then I pressed play and the first sounds I heard were:
"I'M FINNA BANG THIS BITCH THE FUCK OUT! YOU BETTA - YOU MIGHT WANNA RECORD THE WAY...YOU FITTIN TO LOOK AT HISTORY BEING MADE! THIS MOTHERFUCKA, PUT A MIRROR ON THE GODDAMN SCREEN. LET'S GO EL-P!" - Killer Mike
Yep. Sold. I'm in.
I want my rappers to feel that way about their music. In fact, I want to feel that way about everything I do - before I wrote this review I stared at myself in the mirror and yelled those exact words repeatedly to get myself properly hyped on some Cool Runnings shit. "Jeopardy" is now the first song I listen to every morning, and while it's done terrible things for my blood pressure, it's done wonders for my refusal to accept the mediocre in my life.
From "Jeopardy" on, Run the Jewels 2 is uppercut after uppercut. Just a few days after its release, I think its safe to say this is the album we were hoping for. And while I still need time to marinate on the project's larger impact and figure where it's going to land on my albums of the year list, those things don't really matter right now. All that matters is how all the moments of this album are soundtracking my life. In fact, let's review...
A Brief, Incomplete List of Great Fucking Moments from Run the Jewels 2
- Killer Mike's intro to "Jeopardy" (see above)
- On "Oh My Darling Don't Cry" when El says, "I do two things, I rap and fuck" and then right after Mike says, "I fuckin' rap." Sometimes it's the simple things in life that mean the most.
- That beat switch around 2:30 on "Oh My Darling Don't Cry." It's the real life 11.
- "Blockbuster Night Pt. 1" when El-P says "Fuckin' magicians" and then Killer Mike's next verse kicks off with "No hocus pocus." Just like "Oh My Darling," at a time when songs are assembled via emailed verses, that's the type of shit that can only happen when two people are in the same room. Also, word to Blockbuster nights.
- Can we talk about the fact that they pulled Zach de la Rocha out of retirement? Because that dude doesn't get nearly enough credit as an emcee. And it makes perfect sense, because the only thing more non-fuckwithable than loving the smell of burning sofas during prison riots is riding down Rodeo with a shotgun.
- "Lie, Cheat, Steal": El-P can fucking rap, but do you hear that pocket Mike finds with his flow on at 1:44. Do you hear it? DO YOU?!?
- That one time Killer Mike said "husbaland" instead of "husband" on "Love Again" and it completely worked. That time.
Obviously my emphasis so far here has been on the more overtly aggressive aspects of this album because when you get punched in the face it's hard to talk about anything else but being punched in the face, but really the difference between RTJ1 and RTJ2 is its next level of depth. In case you haven't noticed, shit has not been all rainbows and hugs around these parts lately and Run the Jewels isn't afraid to confront the darkness head-on. It doesn't get much more complexly powerful than the story of a redeemed drug dealer on "Crown" and "Early" might be one of the best responses to police brutality since Ferguson.
Too much of what we think about when we hear terms like "real hip-hop" has becoming whining, ineffective, anti-mainstream cliches. It's complaining for the sake of complaining - toothless and cowering behind a tough exterior. Run the Jewels has succeded by actually, really, truthfully being the change they wish to see in the world, and in the process they've made me (and a lot of other people) question if they're being too complacent. Good music speaks to your life, great music makes you want to change your life, and RTJ2 is great music.
Plus, cats. Don't forget the cats...and dolphin noise ad-libs....and street art projects...and Christmas cards. That's why it's hard to know where to rank this album on the inevitable Best Albums of the Year list and how many spins to give it; measuring RTJ2 by conventional metrics is like using a ruler to measure the distance to the sun. So maybe for now the best thing to do is just listen and look at history being made. Let's go.
[Nathan S. is the managing editor of The DJBooth and a hip-hop writer. He also occasionally talks in podcast form and appears on RevoltTV. His beard is awesome. This is his Twitter.]