I have seen Killer Mike and El-P obliterate a building, on the West Side of Chicago (read that a la Cam in ‘Dipset Anthem‘), joined by the charmingly self-depreciating Despot and the then-Muthafuckin Mr. eXquire, two fine rappers who could not have mattered less when Mike and El-P took to the stage, which is a commentary on the transcendent performances the pair delivered, not a knock on their set mates.
Killer Mike, all lumbering passion, righteous anger and colossal dimensions, had the crowd chanting “Fuck Ronald Reagan!” and celebrating father figures, rapt with attention over political tension and unleashing violent jubilance to ‘Never Scared’; El-P kept the stage bathed in Blade Runner black and crimson, pushing forward song after song, wave after wave, each laced through with that unmistakable, unadulterated New York City flow, the Platonic Universal of New York City flows, placing that timeless New York City flow atop pulsating, EDM-influenced instrumentation accented by noodling, incandescent live key and guitar solos.
That second aesthetic could be considered the dominant one on their collaborative Run The Jewels. The production here stabs, sprinkles, throbs, bangs; listen to the way each hit sends little ripples through ’36″ Chain,’ how the fuzzy ‘No Come Down’ undulates like a dancer’s hips, how the babbling little drums at the end of the eponymous opener add some pulp to the proceedings, all wearing an impressionist – in the literary sense -coat of 90s nostalgia. Most everything here has the hard-edged head nodding properties of Cancer 4 Cure’s ‘The Full Retard’ or A-Trak’s ‘Piss Test’ (the remix of which features El-P). What results is a glossy, Cimmerian beauty, not unlike Rachael, atop of which are two of our more stable, technically adept rappers, with the whole thing fitting together as snugly as Sean Young’s waistline.
In an era where hip-hop has been spread wide, one gets the notion that Killer Mike and El-P are men who appreciate the fullback and the I-formation; in American football, having these players and sets on the field implies that you intend to run it up the gut of your opponent, to play what we call “smashmouth” ball, which is about as subtle as a shotgun, and consists of having your incredibly large, powerful men push the other large, powerful men out of the way so that a slightly smaller, slightly less powerful, and appreciably more graceful man can proceed to run betwixt the Straight of Messina, prolate spheroid tucked like an infant, pointed ends bracketed by wrist and elbow, in advancement of his cause.
The causes advanced here run the gamut from the vaguely and ostensibly political to the classically verbose, mostly sans pontification or braggadocio. Killer Mike lays down bars with the flat, broad, colorful strokes of Roy Lichtenstein, juxtaposed by El-P’s rococo Brooklyn flow. Nothing much either one says could be considered groundbreaking, per se, but that is not the point; the point is that few rappers could boast the same combination of precision and voice that these two do. This is reflected in the spartan guest list; only an ebullient Big Boi really rhymes along, with Prince Paul dropping in as a concupiscent libertine and Until The Ribbon Breaks providing a breathy hook.
In a way, Run The Jewels is something less than the sum of its parts; both Cancer 4 Cure and R.A.P. Music could be considered superior records. It must be understood, however, that to say Run the Jewels falls short of said duo is not the same as proclaiming it a failure; indeed, slipping into the wake of two newly-minted classics is among the most dangerous places an album could find itself, with ink and audience both creating a bloody, gnashing, insatiable tumult. Run the Jewels not only surmounts Charybdis, but does so head held high, able to be considered – and enjoyed – upon its own merits.