Trigger warning: If you or someone you love is a fuckboy, do yourself a favor and steer clear of Run the Jewels 2. You will not like what you hear. Here’s a brief, but nearly complete list of people who are exempt, as handed down by El-P and Killer Mike on RTJ2: Malcolm X, UGK (Pimp C posthumously given the Lifetime Achievement Award), MJG, the Weathermen (both the hip-hop and militant factions), Gangsta Boo, Scarface (that’s Brad Jordan, Al Pacino’s is noticeably absent here), Zack De La Rocha, Biggie, 2Pac, Nas (ca. 1993 and also 2014, as this is being released on his Mass Appeal imprint). That’s really about it.
Otherwise, when El-P sneers, “You want a whore in a white dress/ I want a wife with a thong” during “Angel Duster”, it’s a metaphor that implicates just about everybody in his blast radius—conservative and liberal politicians who hide their bullshit ideals behind “values,” religious figures doing the same, beta-male types using performative tolerance as a front for their passive-aggressive misogyny, or just anyone who’s full of shit. #Fuckboy is a pervasive mental affliction, and for Run the Jewels, it’s what cocaine was to Clipse, sex to Lil Wayne, clothing to Cam’ron—their domain, their muse, a seemingly endless source of inspiration for the most viciously realized rap album of 2014 and most other years.
It’s important to note that RTJ2 is an album—it’s on a real label and you can pay money to own it. And the transition from mixtape-to-album explains every progression El-P and Killer Mike have made in the past year. Think of it as the Hell Hath No Fury to Run the Jewels’ We Got It 4 Cheap—the latter were freewheeling collaborations that introduced commercially exiled veterans to a new audience of microphone fiends and completely reframed their public perception. The sequel feels more like a statement, taking into account crucial constructs like sequencing, judiciously granted guest spots, and pacing. But Run the Jewels exchange Clipse’s unrelenting, and highly specific mean streak for a righteous anger that has a gleeful, conspiratorial edge—Run the Jewels get it and you get them.
This is one of the more readily apparent aspects of Run the Jewels’ development as a functioning group; they were a festival act from the start and RTJ2 is a rare hip-hop record that sounds like it was created with live performance in mind. They’re two guys with dexterous, booming voices over blaring production that’s percussive, abrasive, and dynamic. The first half is uncut aggression for any situation in transit, the first thing you can reach for if you’re getting elbowed on the subway or cut off in traffic driving down I-85. As RTJ2 progresses, it’s still the same detritus that filled El-P’s iron galaxy in the past, only now, the forms are recognizable and warm: dub’s echo and synth bass swiped from Amnesiac commingle on “All My Life”, vocal snippets are taken from Police Academy’s Michael Winslow on “Oh My Darling Don’t Cry”, and Zack De La Rocha on “Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck)” before the real thing comes through to spit some goofy, try-hard “Bombtrack”-style aggro braggadocio that doubles as the best verse of his life. On the whole, RTJ2 is El-P’s most accessible and rangy production to date and he’s hit a stride that recalls Sonic Youth in 1987 or Animal Collective in 2004, the point where a celebrated noise terrorist starts to embrace and challenge their audience rather than simply testing their patience.
Run the Jewels are undeniably a crossover hip-hop act, and cognizant of their unique position—Mike and El’s career-changing 2012 albums respectively came courtesy of Cartoon Network and a former blues label that spent years claiming the Black Keys as their most “contemporary” act. Both have been around long enough to recognize they share stages with EDM acts and fans with Future and Young Thug; rather than seeing them as threats, they view them as inspiration and competition, as it’s the commercial vanguard who are fucking with language and syntax as much as Def Jux and Dungeon Family ever were.
And therein is the most important lack of distinction on RTJ2, that between “old school” and “new school,” “lyrical” and whatever its opposite is, as if hip-hop isn’t a living, evolving organism. El and Mike deliver both blows to the sternum and elbow-jabs to the ribs; there are hours worth of instantly quotable, clever ignorance, as in El-P’s already much-loved request that haters, “Can all run naked backwards through a field of dicks.” Meanwhile, Mike’s verse on “All Due Respect” is a blacked-out, brilliant clinic in rhythm, wordplay and content—”This year, we iller than a nun in a cumshot/ Getting double-penetrated in a dope spot/ By two hard pipe hittin’ niggas/ On the orders of Marcellus to the soundtrack of 2Pac/ I beat you to a pulp, no fiction/ Tarantino flow, new Jules (Jewels) and Vincent.”
Throughout RTJ2, the duo appear limitless in their vocal capacity, whether working as a tag team, storytellers, or engaging in battle-rap one-upmanship. “Blockbuster Night, Pt. 1” is all razzle dazzle alliteration, while “Oh My Darling Don’t Cry” compiles a career’s worth of flows, from “We Dem Boyz”-derived “hol’ up”s! to Adidas-scuffing tough talk to the triplet-flipping “Move that Dope” cadence. Any sort of geographical or philosophical or stylistic boundary that stood between the two no longer exists, if it ever did; El is just as likely to spit Dirty South double time raps about strippers as Mike is to wax about obscure historical figures and governmental conspiracies.
RTJ2is darker, bolder, and longer than its predecessor, though still clocking in at a bullshit-free 39 minutes; the difference between this and most sequels is that this one actually has a plot. Both El-P and Killer Mike are pushing 40, career artists spitting grown-ass raps about grown-ass problems. They came of age during a time when “the black CNN” was actually something worth aspiring to and hip-hop isn’t the one that failed to keep up its end of the bargain; I don’t know if they finally found the plane or have moved onto 24-hour coverage of the ebola panic, but these days you might as well be watching Channel Zero. Comedians are now delivering the hardest news anyway, and RTJ2 is more “Last Week Tonight”, ditching the ironic distance that typified political humor and going straight for the killshot.
As with Vince Staples’ “Hands Up”, “Early” is live reportage of police brutality that wasn’t directly inspired by the death of Michael Brown. Which is what makes it even more frightening. The racial dynamic of Run the Jewels is occasionally played for laughs on RTJ2; here, it’s acknowledged in a powerful, unspoken way, as Mike’s role is that of the street preacher, empowered by the support of his people, whereas El plays the wilderness prophet, his madness spurred by the realization his craziest thoughts are coming to pass. Mike is harassed in his home over trivial weed possession and taken away in cuffs while the neighbors record the scene on their cell phones. Meanwhile, El-P walks the streets of New York untouched by the police, but affected by his own powerlessness. He closes his mournful verse with “They’ll watch you walk to the store they’re recording/ But didn’t record a cop when he shot no warning,” concluding the cycle of violence with, “Go home, go to sleep, up again early”—the last line echoing “it was everyday America and that’s all” from Sun Kil Moon’s “Pray for Newtown”, another anti-gun protest whose headlines were pulled from the past and has its relevance renewed throughout 2014 in regular and increasingly dispiriting intervals.
A similar splitscreen occurs on “Crown”; Mike’s verse is based on a true story, recalling his days of slinging cocaine to a pregnant woman just to make ends meet, praying for God to give him a lane out of this life. Once the kid is born, Mike sighs, “Heard he was normal ’til three and then he stopped talking,” racked with guilt until he meets the woman a few years later and she relieves him of his burden—”I’ve been redeemed/ I found in Christ/ Whatever it take, I hope you find it, Mike.” Meanwhile, El takes a surprisingly empathetic tone towards an army ensign who himself was just trying to find his own lane, pitying the man for voluntarily surrendering his free will to become a human weapon but understanding the choice in light of the mental torture. Whereas the broad scope of R.A.P. Music and Cancer for Cure made Run the Jewels seem like a one-off lark, the interaction between El and Mike on “Crown” and “Early” makes those records somehow sound incomplete in retrospect.
But these moments of reflection are wisely paced within RTJ2’s otherwise relentless assault. “Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck)” is the hardest, most celebratory track about starting a prison riot since “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos”; sulfur burns and wardens are waterboarded, as, “We killin’ em for freedom cause they tortured us for boredom/ And even if some good ones die, fuck it, the Lord’ll sort ’em.” The most unconventional social study occurs on “Love Again (Akinyele Back)”; as Yeezus proved, consensual, unorthodox sex is instantly heard as misogyny and the he-said, she-said hook of, “She want that dick in her mouth all day” certainly courts trouble. At least until Gangsta Boo steals the track with a verse of even greater demands and vulgarity, in the same way she made filthy Three 6 Mafia songs like “Tongue Ring” and “Hit It From the Back” sound strangely progressive in their gender politics.
Referring to “Put It in Your Mouth”, the most infamous track of “Love Again”’s parenthetical namesake, El-P commented, “i feel lucky to have grown up in a time when filthy/stupid/funny rap songs could be hits like that one.” RTJ2 isn’t backwards-looking or a throwback, but any record whose most notable guest appearances come from former members of Three 6 Mafia and Rage Against the Machine is nostalgic to some degree. There’s also the hovering influence of not just N.W.A. and Public Enemy, but also less critically revered innovators like the Geto Boys, Goodie Mob, and 8Ball & MJG, Southern acts whose intelligence and complexity felt natural, wisdom from stoops, liquor stores, and street corners that translated to college dorms without ever presenting themselves as “art” or “conscious” rappers.
As much as El-P and Killer Mike want to distance themselves from being seen as role models, they are; their experience just happens to sound a hell of a lot like the truth. Towards the end of “Lie, Cheat, Steal”, Killer Mike digs a shallow grave for deposed Clippers despot Donald Sterling, but not entirely for his horrifying racism; what truly offends Mike is seeing the guy blubbering on TV, giving apologies he doesn’t mean in the slightest, outing himself as another “prisoner of privilege” in a system where even a billionaire isn’t in control of his destiny. And the common thread that ties RTJ2 with some of the other widely-celebrated albums of 2014—Benji, To Be Kind, and Beyoncé—is that each is an example of a seasoned artist using their financial and artistic capital to take control of the means of production and distribution, putting the least amount of distance between themselves and their vision. “Independent as fuck” indeed; sounding like nothing else and answering to nobody but its creators, Run the Jewels 2 is in a class by itself.
from Album Reviews – Pitchfork http://ift.tt/1tghTcb