This is chin music with a grin; put-your-ass-on-the-ground-if-you-crowd-the-plate-with-a-smirk music. Killer Mike and El-P have found a lot of memorable ways to describe their chemistry as the duo Run the Jewels, but on their second album, the “top tag team for two summers,” as Mike bills them on opening cut “Jeopardy,” they’re operating at peak. On “Blockbuster Night (Part 1),” Mike delivers a wallop over producer/partner El-P’s whiplash of static and sinister thuds: “You rappers doo-doo, baby shit, just basic boo-boo/ I’m Shaka Zulu, Mansa Musa, my money beaucoup,” opposing poopy-time humor with references to a 19th-century African monarch, a 14th-century Malian emperor and a fat bankroll. These sorts of feral shit-talk soliloquies distinguished the duo’s 2013 free-download debut, and that bad-seed bluster blooms into full view on the follow-up. But Run the Jewels 2 takes a deeper, darker turn. Like Shaka, it possesses a mercurial power, part benevolent unifier, part head-on-a-stake despot. Suffused with love and hate and regret (plus the robot voice of Police Academy’s Michael Winslow on “Oh My Darling Don’t Cry”), it may be the only rap album of 2014 worth trusting.
But wait, let’s rewind the jewels!
Take it back to MC Ren’s spotlight cut from N.W.A‘s Straight Outta Compton (released in 1988 when the Run the Jewels twosome were impressionable eighth-graders) and its booming chorus: “If it ain’t ruff it ain’t me.” Now, decades later, Michael “Killer Mike” Render (Atlanta-based Dungeon Family affiliate/raconteur/entrepreneur) and Jaime “El-P” Meline (Brooklyn-based indie-as-fuck innovator) are still-spry 39-year-old vets of the culture. They’ve watched rap mature, regress, gorge on success, weep over loss, veinsuck the energy of the young, take for granted the blood and sweat of the old, and never quite stop moving. It’s moot whether rap was ever the black CNN, per Chuck D’s overflogged quote, but it’s lowered our expectations in many of the same ways as the network. No longer a premium channel, it’s desperate for ratings amid an oozing sprawl of consumer options, exploiting sociopolitical situations while professing to help, clumsily interrupting breaking news with celebrity offal, appearing incoherent and overwhelmed, grotesquely objectifying sexuality, arguing feebly with Talib Kweli, threatening to become Don Lemon.
So Ren’s “If It Ain’t Ruff” mantra — which could be the mission statement of Run the Jewels — still feels like a revolutionary, retromaniacal subversion a year after RTJ’s 2013 kickoff. A bluntly immediate all-elbows push-pack. A punkish resituation. But also an initial step. On the title track of Killer Mike’s 2012 solo album R.A.P. Music (where his friendship and collaboration began with then-producer El-P), he proclaimed, “This is church, front pew, amen, pulpit/ What my people need and the opposite of bullshit.” RTJ2 edges in that direction, burning shit down to build it back up, but minus the conscious-rap tinge. It’s as if the duo agreed — after their own bittersweet career paths — that rap only works as an extremely blunt instrument, wielded with little but gut instincts. If anything, RTJ2 feels unconscious; Mike and El’s rhymes are the passionate spew of seasoned no-fucks-givers and the production (primarily by El-P and wingman Torbitt “Little Shalimar” Schwartz) frames whatever’s hurled against the wall.
To wit: “Jeopardy” opens with Killer Mike’s ominous, who’s-that-peepin’-in-my-window? pow, backed by strangled cries of trombone and organ; on “Oh My Darling Don’t Cry,” the beat strobes like a demon-possessed EKG as El-P goes nuclear-Rickles (“You can all run naked backwards through a field of dicks”) and Mike conducts a “fuccboi jihad,” tiptoeing on the track “like a ballerina” and deading your style like an “obese female opera singer” or a dude in a ski mask in a Pontiac Catalina (whichever works); “All Due Respect” is a woofer-caving groove that goes astonishingly bonkers when El-P berates an orphan MC and Mike wakes up in Nigeria with malaria and Travis Barker‘s barrage of drum breaks clatters along like a no-brakes joyride; meanwhile, on the coiled cipher “Close Your Eyes (and Count to Fuck),” Zack de La Rocha roars with ageless rage.
Both members of Run the Jewels have previously recorded nuanced political broadsides — Killer Mike’s “That’s Life” and Company Flow’s “Patriotism” rank with pop music’s finest — but on RTJ2, their stark directness chills. Mike, on “Lie, Cheat, Steal”: “You really made it or just became a prisoner of privilege?/ You willing to share that information that you’ve been given?” Or El-P, on “All Due Respect”: “Can’t relate to your first-world struggles/ You want safety, hugs and cuddles/ IEDs will leave bloody puddles.” Conversely, the good-intentions feministing of “Love Again (Akinyele Back),” with Memphis boss-lady Gangsta Boo playing the Yo-Yo role to RTJ’s Ice Cube, sounds like a cool concept; and Boo brashly answers New York spitter Akinyele’s uproarious ’90s oral-sex burlesque “Put It in Your Mouth.” The track just never finds its hot spot.
But that’s the rare misstep on RTJ2, a tale of two friends struggling to be responsible adults as they sonically punch the world in the face on general principle. The necessary truths they tell are the ones you find in the mirror when you’re piss-drunk, every flaw and vulnerability magnified. There are thrills here, but they never come cheap. And on “Crown,” the album’s psychic lynchpin, RTJ’s commitment to skull-crack honesty hits hardest; Mike confronts criminality and betrayal and shame and family and prayer in what might be his most powerful lyric to date, illuminated by intuitive, seamlessly expressive production from El-P. After Mike chants the chorus, “Can’t pick up no crown, holding what’s holding you down,” El’s verse suggests that Mike’s wayward street soldier could be a grunt anywhere on the planet, carrying a flag in some other man’s armed force. His voice stings: “You are the smoldering vessel of punishment born to do nothing but justify us.”
How to escape the smolder of victimhood? There are no answers here, kids, and explicitly so. That’s what usually ruins records like this by smart-guy rappers, a desire to serve you a specific message and tell you how to eat it. RTJ2 lights a flame, but there’s no fretting about whether it might explode in the wrong hands. The art lies in taking the risk. It also helps if you’ve found a trusted partner who’s got your back; that’s one thing these two lifers will tell you, no hesitation.