Last year, Atlanta native Michael "Killer Mike" Render and Brooklyn-based professional rapper-slash-fornicator Jaime "El-P" Meline joined forces to form the duo Run The Jewels, their only real focus being eliminating their useless and uninteresting competition from our collective consciousness. They did this by ambushing the microphone with pointed barbs, boasts, metaphors, and out-and-out aggression, as though they really were fucking pissed off at the state of affairs hip hop has currently found itself in. The end result, the conveniently-titled Run The Jewels, was released for free on the Interweb (although a version you could actually buy, with some additional extras, was distributed through a deal with A-Trak's Fool's Gold label), and quickly topped many best-of lists at the end of 2013.
Which makes sense, because that album was pretty good. There's more than enough shit-talking in hip hop, but Jaime and Mike took that shit to another plane of existence, all while creating music that was actually interesting to listen to.
So this year, they did it again. And did it better.
Now fully aware that there is an actual audience for their shenanigans, El-P and Killer Mike recorded and released Run The Jewels 2 under expectations unfairly set for them. One would think that this would force the duo to do everything bigger and more bombastically, but one would be dead wrong: the only real difference in its execution is the choice of label for distribution, with Run The Jewels landing on Mass Appeal Records, a label run by, of all people, Nas. (Even though I've seen photos and know this to be false, I still like to believe that Esco has no idea who El-P is and what his musical output sounds like. Killer Mike, sure; the guy used to work pretty heavily with OutKast and even copped a Grammy with them, so he was at least popular enough at one time to warrant Nas's attention, but Lazerface?) Everything else is essentially the same, right down to the album cover, which is merely an updated version of the original's artwork. Which helps when you're trying to build a brand, I suppose.
Run The Jewels 2 is, like its predecessor, available as a free download, a "thank you" to the loyal fans who supported the duo from day one (which would have technically happened when Killer Mike's all-El-P produced album R.A.P. Music dropped, I suppose, since working together on that project was the genesis for Run The Jewels). However, these guys would still like to get paid for their hard work, please, so you can also purchase Run The Jewels 2 in many different incarnations through many different merchants, and you may or may not get a sticker from them in return. My favorite part of the marketing for the album by far was the hilarious e-mail Jaime and Mike sent out that detailed multiple phony Kickstarter-esque goals for increasingly-ridiculous prizes, one of which actually became a reality: I'm still undecided if I'm actually going to review Meow The Jewels, a remix album (with some goddamn huge collaborators - when was the last time you saw The Automator and Prince Paul appear on the same album?) with all of the lyrics replaced with cat sounds (I have a feeling that will change, though), but I'm happy that it will at least exist.
The original Run The Jewels wasn't exactly an instant classic for me: I enjoyed it, but at the time of my original review, I was in a headspace where I couldn't figure out why everyone on the planet was so unabashed with their love. It is a solid album, one that grew on me after multiple listens, but to be honest, I don't listen to anything aside from "Banana Clipper" anymore, so. Run The Jewels 2 has already captured my attention, though, and I technically haven't even written a single word about the songs themselves yet.
Let's fix that.
Run The Jewels 2 kicks off with the sounds of Mike shouting in the studio, setting the antagonistic tone right off the bat and confirming that the duo's sworn enemies, "fuckboys" the world over, continue to be the villain of this piece. Then the beat appears, materializing piece-by-piece as though El-Producto were crafting it exclusively within the confines of your earbuds. The instrumental doesn't really do anything for me: it sounds like a bad Jay-Z intro. But Jaime and Mikey's single verses help elevate this shit, the respective deliveries more so than any of the actual lyrics, which are good in context but instantly forgettable otherwise. Oh well, moving forward.
2. OH MY DARLING DON'T CRY
Now that shit is more like it. "Oh My Darling Don't Cry", with its pounding beat creating instant potholes in your lawn and its repetitive-but-contagious robot sounds (provided by Michael Winslow, of Police Academy and Spaceballs fame, for fuck's sake), was the second single released from the project (it was also included in an unrelated adult swim project, as that niche cable channel has been longtime supporters of Run The Jewels), with El-P's shout-outs to the late Pimp C and The Notorious B.I.G. and Killer Mike's reference to opera (almost certainly designed to remind listeners of his goofy-as-shit performance on adult swim's The Eric Andre Show) beating your subconscious to within an inch of its life. Fuck that "Jeopardy" shit: this should have been the intro. If you'll excuse me, I now feel the need to flip over cars and punch holes into the sides of office buildings with my dick. I'll be back.
3. BLOCKBUSTER NIGHT, PT. 1
The first single, which goes pretty goddamn hard, as both Killer Mike and El-P unleash their disrespectful, shit-talking ids over a pulsating, rattling instrumental that could double as the sound of a robot climaxing. Could also have been used as the rap album intro, since "Blockbuster Night, Pt. 1" is two-and-a-half minutes of unrelenting viciousness delivered by two guys who could give a fuck whether you're willing to travel with them on their journey or not.
4. CLOSE YOUR EYES (AND COUNT TO FUCK) (FEAT. ZACK DE LA ROCHA)
Follows the same general template as "Oh My Darling Don't Cry", building its instrumental around a looped-to-infinity vocal sample. That said vocal sample comes from guest star Zack de la Rocha, who flat-out fucking destroys this track and possibly contributes one of the hottest verses of the entire goddamn album, is just cake. We may never get to hear his solo work with El-P, but at least the former Rage Against The Machine frontman delivers a hell of a lot more than he did on his disappointing "cameo" on Deltron Event II. Jaime and Mike's aggressive boasts are akin to listening to motivational speakers who could give a damn about your well-being, which is intended as a compliment, sort of. But this shit belongs to the guest star. Remember his out-of-left-field appearance on that freestyle from that one Lyricist Lounge album? That, but to the nth degree. This shit was nice.
5. ALL MY LIFE
One thing the Run The Jewels albums have proven thus far is how versatile El-P is as a producer: "All My Life", the K-Ci and Jo-Jo cover that wasn't, doesn't sound anything like what he did for Company Flow, Cannibal Ox (who, without El-Producto's further assistance, should just hang it the fuck up. I'm sorry, but no one gives a shit, guys), or even on his own solo projects. "All My Life"'s musical backing is what would happen is Massive Attack recorded a rap song while being forced at gunpoint to take the label's notes regarding song structure. Jaime and Mike's boasts aren't flashy, but thanks to how much this shit bangs (even with the corny chanting of the title during the hook), you'll still buy into every syllable.
6. LIE, CHEAT, STEAL
The beat on "Lie, Cheat, Steal" is less accessible than "All My Life", but it's still far more appealing than anything from Kanye West's Yeezus (an album El-P likes, from what I understand, but I wouldn't hold that against him). Killer Mike and El-Producto hold court over the loud-ass beat, not necessarily demanding that the listeners follow their commands, but not not demanding them, either. Entertaining enough to listen to, but most of you two probably won't specifically seek it out again, you know?
7. EARLY (FEAT. BOOTS)
I take back my last sentence: while "Early" began to play, all I could think of was the hook from "Lie, Cheat, Steal", so that previous song works a bit better in hindsight. Anyway, "Early": The chorus, courtesy of guest star Boots (straight off of producing several tracks on Beyonce's monster self-titled album, making this quite the coup for our hosts), is unnecessary but pleasant, staying out of the way long enough for Jaime and Mike to get serious for a moment, especially with Mikey's verse, which is a first-person account of both he and his wife being harassed by the cops. A response to the Ferguson tragedy? Most likely, but that doesn't take away its power. "Early", while in no way relaxed in its presentation, comes across as the calm before a shitstorm of some sort, so in a way, it was nice of Run The Jewels to include a mental rest area on the project.
8. ALL DUE RESPECT (FEAT. TRAVIS BARKER)
The volume kicks up a notch, thanks to Travis Barker's drum work, and Killer Mike adopts a double-time flow that reminded me of some of his collaborations alongside OutKast, whose Big Boi, if you'll recall, pitched in a memorable cameo on the original Run The Jewels. El-Producto's own speed-rap merely reminded me of how not every rapper can pull that kind of flow off, but there were still some bars of his that ricochet around in your skull. This hookless track runs as a stream-of-consciousness disrespectful rant, cutting itself off when it grows bored of itself. Not bad, but not great.
9. LOVE AGAIN (AKINYELE BACK) (FEAT. GANGSTA BOO)
The weirdest collaborator on Run The Jewels 2 is featured on a filthy-as-fuck sex rap (hence the Akinyele shout-out in the song title, although he probably also could have torn this beat apart - there's a free idea for a remix, guys), a sub-genre of hip hop you two most likely never thought Jaime and Mike would care enough about to attempt. Gangsta Boo, the once-born-again-but-then-converted-back rapper best known for her membership within the Academy Award-winning Three 6 Mafia (now known as Da Mafix 6ix, but without founding member Juicy J, who is apparently now too popular for reunion tours), spits X-rated rhymes with our hosts over a hypnotic hum that you won't be able to ignore, and Jaime and Mike's bars are so dirty and audacious that you have to chuckle at them. Oddly compelling, and hey, that's two careers Run The Jewels have resurrected thus far on the project. Huh.
10. CROWN (FEAT. DIANE COFFEE)
There were a lot of comparisons drawn between Jay-Z and Kanye West's Watch The Throne and the original Run The Jewels at the time of its release: one can't help but look at the title "Crown" as a response of sorts. As the most subdued track of the entire album, "Crown" features a mysterious, brooding instrumental that houses Killer Mike's laments of selling drugs to a pregnant woman and El-P's observations on gun control. Both artists are more matter-of-fact and have something to say, which is a welcome retreat from the typical shit-talking. The whole enterprise feels unstable toward the end, but "Crown" is flat-out good.
11. ANGEL DUSTER
The ending of "Crown" leads directly to the final track on the album, "Angel Duster", an appropriate outro that features boasts 'n bullshit while Jaime and Mike both make their cases for continued longevity within our chosen genre. The instrumental carries on for a full minute after the track should have ended, giving El-Producto an opportunity to fuck around behind the boards, his discordant melody simultaneously destroying your psyche and helping to rebuild, 1980's flick montage-style. This was a fucking fantastic way to end the album, no lie. Also, Mike's "RTJ" chant rivals that of "ball so hard" on Watch The Throne's "N----s In Paris" for sheer catchiness.
If you actually throw money the duo's way on iTunes, you're gifted with the following bonus track.
12. BLOCKBUSTER NIGHT, PT. 2 (FEAT. DESPOT & WIKI)
This official sequel to the first single off of Run The Jewels 2 features guest stars Despot (fresh off of cameos on other rappers' projects: so where's that solo album at?) and Wiki (from the group Ratking), and it is a goddamn monster. El-P's beat differs from the original take in melody but not in intensity, and each of the four verses (well, Wiki's less so, since he sounds like an inexperienced Capone to my old ears, but still, not terrible) absolutely destroys their contributions, Jaime and Mike's being all-new. Although not even three minutes long, "Blockbuster Night, Pt. 2" is good enough that some of you two may be tempted to pay full price for the project just to get this one song (at least those of you two who have no idea how to find things online). Possibly one of the best bonus tracks, well, ever.
THE LAST WORD: Run The Jewels 2 isn't perfect, but it improves upon what already worked on its predecessor and turns the volume up to 'fuck'. Killer Mike and El-P spit straight venom, whether they're talking shit or relating a story as only they can (both artists are pretty skilled storytellers, a fact that could potentially get lost when the best songs on here are boastful in nature). I'm reluctant to pin the "album of the year" tail to this donkey, since I never actually do shit like that, but it could very well take the title, since 2014 has kind of sucked ass for major hip hop releases, let's be honest. El-Producto and his various co-producers deliver a tight set of instrumentals that share a level of intensity (for the most part) while sounding varied enough to not have the (short) project devolve into sheer boredom. The (incredibly) short list of guests was also a plus: I'm not really a big Rage Against The Machine fan, but pulling that verse out of Zach de la Rocha was fucking genius. But the lack of collaborators means that Jaime and Mike are the main focus, as they should be. I rate Run The Jewels 2 much higher than the original project, which, once again, I still liked. I'll leave it up to you if you actually want to purchase it (maybe just hand money over to the duo directly if you see one of their live shows), but I have to admit, that iTunes bonus track is pretty fucking great. (Although it would be appreciated if you made your purchase on Amazon for obvious reasons, trust me, I would understand.)
Run The Jewels - Run The Jewels