Hip Hop is dead. Hip hop is cliched. Hip Hop isn’t Hip Hop. These arguments have been around since DJ Kool Herc‘s first successor, and probably will never fully die. Hip Hop is, and always has been, in a state of constant evolution. There have been moments where the course of the mainstream ship was off into worrisome territory (Vanilla Ice, gangsta cliches, Puff Daddy excess, anything involving Fergie), but the ship always rights itself when new visions rise up, and in five years people will lament that Hip Hop is dead again till the next masterpiece.
Enter Killer Mike and El-P. Their self-titled debut album as rap powerhouse duo Run The Jewels rained in plaudit upon plaudit, and when a sequel was announced anticipation heightened to dizzying levels. More aggressive than its predecessor, RTJ2 keeps the party going and explores new arenas in both lyric and sound. It’s still striking just how good Killer Mike, that Big South social realist, and El-P, the philosophical pessismist, work together. Each song is like a car conversation on True Detective. Killer Mike’s primarily emotional, nostalgic, lamenting, contrasting with the more intellectual and literary El-P. In some artistic partnerships the creative power can feel lopsided, being more like a rising star with a hanger-on attached. Run The Jewels is the exact opposite, with a perfect yin-yang, Lennon–McCartney dynamic.
Jeopardy begins the album, with foreboding solo notes and Killer Mike dishing lines like “I’m putting pistols at faces at random places,” and the self-aggrandizing statment “The passion of ‘Pac, the depth of Nas, circa 93/ Mix the mind of Brad Jordan and Chuck D and find me.” Oh My Darling Don’t Cry, named like a Western Folk Ballad out of hell, is all thumps and chipmunk vocal scratches. El-P’s alliteration recalls Blackalicious‘ A2G: “I been a better bad guy than I been better than bad/ been a better bully, talk beatin’ on my chest.” Killer Mike’s ending staccato verses topple into each other, like he’s surfing on the toppling wave of the beat, or running up a flight of crumbling stairs to the exit in some old-school video game.
The music runs straight into Blockbuster Night Part 1 (there is no Part 2 on the album), a gem, no pun intended. The justifiably angry line, “The fellows on at the top are likely rapists, but you’re like, “mellow out man, just relax, it’s really not that complicated,” questions the integrity of our so-called heroes. Zach De La Rocha’s appearance on Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck) is brilliant, and he delivers his best new performance since RATM disbanded. In barely one minute he references sci-fi prophet Philip K Dick, two Miles Davis albums, Batman’s hometown, Klan leaders, and Afghanis in the morgue in a ripping anti-corporate/capitalist rant. Blink-182‘s Travis Barker provides drums on All Due Respect, a scorcher. Love Again features the dirtiest chorus of the year with a schoolbus melody.
Production, primarily handled by El-P, shows a fusion of the past, present and future to create a stylistic niche; the past, a hardcore hip-hop of NWA and Ice Cube, the present, the lessons learned from Outkast‘s insane dreams and Kanye West showing everyone ugly can be beautiful, and the future, where El-P shines. When Pac-Man’s death, that indelible “Eeeew”, is sampled in Early, it fits just as proper as any jazz or funk sample in this sonic world. The synths are heavy, the beats raucous, the lyrics golden, and each song another chapter in a great saga. Run The Jewels 2 is one of the best albums of the year.