Today's post completely throws my whole "finish what I started" project under a bus, as I have written about neither Killer Mike nor El-P on HHID before. (The reviews linked in the sidebar were provided by other readers.) However, a lot of people wanted to see this album written up, and since I have no immediate plans to comment on either man's solo discography (or El-P's work in Company Flow), I figured that this was the best way to kill two birds, etc.
In 2012, Michael "Killer Mike" Render released R.A.P. Music, a critically-acclaimed album that featured wall-to-wall production from Jaime Meline, better known to underground hip hop heads as El-P. Mike had been running in the mixtape circuit after working alongside, and winning multiple awards with, Atlanta duo OutKast; after releasing a single album, Monster, under their wing, Mike rechristened himself Mike Bigga and took to the streets, working on his grind while Andre 3000 and Big Boi reached unparalleled heights in their respective careers. El-P, on the other hand, was on the comeback trail after having to close up shop on his indie label, Definitive Jux, and R.A.P. Music was released close to the time his own project, Cancer 4 Cure, dropped. Many comparisons were drawn, and both projects were blogger favorites but commercial flops (as expected), but the chemistry between the two artists was electric enough for them to join forces as a duo.
Run The Jewels is the name the duo eventually came up with, and this write-up focuses on their self-titled debut album, released as a free download (no, seriously, I triple-checked this time) by DJ A-Trak and Nick Catchdubs's buzzworthy indie label Fool's Gold (home of the likes of Danny Brown, Duck Sauce, and other like-minded rap and house acts). Its ten tracks are produced entirely by El-P, and all of them feature both halves of the duo, rendering this project both an underground response to Kanye West and Jay-Z's Watch The Throne and as yet another example of how a rap album can sound when the production is all handled by a single artistic vision. (Which you and I both agree works, but most rappers still can't see the forest for the trees, apparently.)
Said production leans more toward El-P's experimental, loud, and angry excesses than it does his masterful work on the modern classic Cannibal Ox project The Cold Vein. Which should suit Killer Mike just fine, but makes me sad wondering what that new Can Ox album could have sounded like had they not severed ties with El-Producto. But that's a story for someone else to write.
1. RUN THE JEWELS
The first song of the project is a title track named after the group itself, creating one of the most redundant "artist / song title / album title" combinations in the history of my iPod. Appropriately enough, it sets the tone for the rest of the album: El-Producto's crushing, obtuse instrumental work is a vehicle for the engaging, if a bit indifferent, shit-talking from both El-P and Killer Mile, a pairing so ridiculous that I wouldn't have believed it possible only two years ago, and yet one that works really goddamn well. The two artists complement each other on the two verses that they each share: even if the lines weren't particularly memorable, their combined energy is palpable. Not a bad way to start.
2. BANANA CLIPPER (FEAT. BIG BOI)
Run The Jewels quickly dispenses of one of its few guest stars by placing the previously-leaked "Banana Clipper" early in the tracklisting. Big Boi's cameo is disappointing, in that it's obvious he recorded it independent from El-P and Killer Mike: there's no fraternization at all. Maybe we're all just supposed to be sold on the fact that Killer Mike and Big Boi, who have won Grammys together and, yet, were fighting with each other for several years, are on the same song or something. Regardless, I still liked this song. The beat is, well, bananas, and all these performances are entertaining as shit. True, the track could have ended with Michael's last bar, but hey, bonus Daddy Fat Sax verse, so...
3. 36" CHAIN
Over production that sounds like an old arcade game vomited in your ears, Killer Mike dominates with his wordplay and aggressive flow. El-P appears as well, lending a short verse and even gifting the track its title with a "hook" that sounds custom-built for a meme, but this is the Mike Bigga show otherwise. Neither man says much of anything on here, but that could technically be said of most rap songs. But Mike does prove that all of the critical acclaim he received for R.A.P. Music (and his older mixtape work) was no fluke. That's all I got.
For a song that actively projects a feeling of hopelessness onto the listener, "DDFH" (which stands for "do dope, fuck hope") sure does sound happy as shit. Mike and (especially) El-P seem to relish spitting their pseudo-existential bars (well, that description applies to El-P, although Mike seems to share a similar worldview), delivering their lines with big huge grins that you can actually hear through your speakers, letting the listener know that it's alright, Run The Jewels are just fucking with you. The contrast doesn't entirely work, but then again, I listen to a lot of sad bastard music that's not actually sad. Still, though, this was enjoyable.
5. SEA LEGS
The sounds of the crashing surf are combined with a sinister, electronic-tinged instrumental that allows El-P to simply go off during his opening verse. Mike handles the back half of the track, playing the Jay-Z to El-Producto's Kanye West (a terrible, but entirely accurate, comparison to make, one that Mike seems to directly invite by making a reference to "N----s In Paris"), handling the more traditional (relatively speaking) elements of "Sea Legs" pretty goddamn masterfully. Run The Jewels throw in a hook (complete with a smidge of Auto-Tune) for some reason, although it wasn't necessary at all: El-P and Mike Bigga own this track. Actually plays much better than "Banana Clipper", although I may be alone in believing that.
6. JOB WELL DONE (FEAT. UNTIL THE RIBBON BREAKS)
Heaven forbid El-P and Killer Mike get involved in an actual beef with other artists: their dismissal of "fuck boys", which opens both of their respective verses, could be a description easily applied to them when taken out of proper context, which would take very minimal effort. I actually didn't care for this shit at all, though: the hook (provided by UK crooner Until The Ribbon Breaks) only underscores how formulaic and boring this shit managed to be. That song title as a self-fulfilling prophecy? Not so much. But not every song can be good: otherwise, how else would we know what's better than the rest?
7. NO COME DOWN
8. GET IT
Now this is more like it. After a couple of tracks where El-P's artistic need to fuck with the very concept of "music" as a whole threatened to take over all of Run The Jewels, his work behind the boards on "Get It" is a refreshing slap in the face. Simple but banging, it's the perfect way for El-P and Mike Bigga to smack-talk while expressing their dominance behind the microphone, as every rapper eventually feels confident enough to do. I was left wishing that Run The Jewels was more "Get It" and less "No Come Down", but you can't have everything.
9. TWIN HYPE BACK (FEAT. PRINCE PAUL)
Obviously, "Twin Hype Back" was the one song I was most looking forward to when the tracklist for Run The Jewels leaked, as not only does Prince Paul make a rare-ish vocal appearance, he does so in his Handsome Boy Modeling School persona Chest Rockwell, which is weird and awesome, since I thought the group had died completely when Prince Paul severed business ties with The Automator. El-P and Paul's paths have crossed before: El-P even contributed to the first Handsome Boy project, ...So, How's Your Girl?. But "Twin Hype Back" was ultimately disappointing, as Paul's goofy ad-libs have fuck-all to do with the actual song, which sounds overproduced and under-thought by everyone involved. Paul was pretty amusing, though, but bear in mind that I'm conditioned to like everything the man does, so. I wish this was a more entertaining song.
10. A CHRISTMAS FUCKING MIRACLE
Hilariously misleading. The instrumental begins its life as what actually could be a holiday tune, but it' a classic El-P fake-out, as the music morphs into something much heavier and much more epic than you were expecting. Our hosts split the song, neither man really communicating with the other, but both unleashing their bars in such a powerful manner that you're forced to pay attention. Bleak, dark, and a really fucking good way to end the project.
THE LAST WORD: For a free download, Run The Jewels contains enough moments where you may find yourself trying to figure out just how to compensate El-P and Killer Mike for their work. Okay, that's bullshit: I know than none of you will wonder that, but it's a good enough project to warrant that thought at least crossing your mind, even as just a fleeting one. (In case you're feeling extra charitable, Fool's Gold is selling vinyl copies of Run The Jewels over on their website.) Not every moment worked for me: at times it seemed that Mike and El-P were more concerned with entertaining themselves than anyone else. However, for being one of the more highly anticipated releases of 2013, Run The Jewels surprisingly lives up to (most of) the hype, so you should definitely hunt it down online while I sit here waiting to ignore all of the "Where's that Jay-Z review at?!?" comments that will collect below.