Think outside the boom box: Run the Jewels presents furious sophomore effort

Music columnist Patrick McKenna discusses the hip-hop super-duo’s latest release

By Patrick McKenna | Nov. 4, 2014

Tags: Music rap Reviews

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For most masters of independent music, if major success is ever to come, it’s probably not coming when the musician is on the cusp of turning 40. Both Killer Mike, 39, and El-P, also 39, have broken barriers for middle-aged hip-hopsters, as the two enjoy immediate critical acclaim for their second album together, “Run the Jewels 2.”

With a rich history that involves creating labels, living the lavish celebrity lifestyle, ending labels, rapping on Outkast songs and more, you could say Killer Mike and El-P have lived unconventional musical lives. Killer Mike was a major element in the ‘90s underground hip-hop scene in the South, specifically his home base Atlanta, Georgia. Despite his role in the growing popularity of gritty, politics-infused Southern rap, Mike never achieved the sensational celebrity achieved by his fellow ATLiens (if you don’t realize that’s an Outkast reference, don’t bother reading on).

El-P, living and developing his artistic vision nearly 900 miles away from Mike in Brooklyn, rose up as a similarly massive figure in alternative hip-hop, producing for several notable underground rappers and co-founding the record label Definitive Jux. The two first worked together on Killer Mike’s “R.A.P. Music” (2012), with El-P lending his trademark bashing and brutal beats to the production. Since then, they’ve finally found substantial commercial success in their hip-hop duo Run the Jewels.

“Run the Jewels 2” marks the group’s biggest advancement, both stylistically and lyrically, since its formation, with Mike’s megaphone-worthy delivery and El-P’s crass concoction of thundering instrumentals and unapologetic banter. In addition, it is the first physical release from Mass Appeal Records, the label formed after Nas invested in the long-running magazine for cutting-edge hip-hop acts.

The two define modern music’s return to what Public Enemy, alongside their equally deafening production from The Bomb Squad, perfected years ago, with ear-shattering bass that molds with politically charged call-outs of the wrongdoers in society.

The album is a win throughout all 39 minutes, especially since, unlike most modern hip-hop albums, each song weaves into the next like a crocheted scarf of crunk, toasting and hectic electronic grooves. The diction of hip-hop truly is revolutionizing when it’s voiced through powerful outlets, and Run the Jewels have made it clear that they’re striving to bring forward a whole different method to party-hardy, “down with the Man” hip-hop.

The album-opening trio of “Jeopardy,” “Oh My Darling Don’t Cry” and “Blockbuster Night, Pt. 1” is enough to proclaim this album as 2014’s best for the genre, with a collage of hard-hitting melodies, never overshadowing the effortlessly forceful rhymes from both Mike and El.

Channeling the format of another fantastic party-anthem yet politically righteous album, Ice Cube’s “AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted,” and Jewels’s fellow anarchy-driven experimental rap duo Death Grip’s ferocious instrumental work, these tracks provide a catchy yet catastrophic landscape of music.

The lyrical content bullies society’s bullies, while providing ridiculously creative ways of proclaiming their greatness that few other raps this year can match (“You itsy bitsy furry fright and frickin' sickly/A little prickly, dick on display for Winter swimming”).

Of all the guest spots on this album, which included verses from fellow activist/music great Zack de la Rocha of Rage Against the Machine and drumming from Blink-182’s Travis Barker, the chorus on “Early,” provided by rapper Boots, is by far the best collaboration, with his luscious vocals dancing along El-P’s synth-heavy beat.

“Run the Jewels 2” is something unconventionally awesome, with banging melodies mixed just right with each lyrical jab the duo offers throughout the record. The two seasoned musicians have long deserved recognition for their place in hip-hop, and this album is sure to lead the way toward a more prosperous standing in music for El-P and Killer Mike.

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