In his pre-“NCIS: LA” existence, LL Cool J once rhymed in the persona of a struggling rapper on “Cheesy Rat Blues.” Times got so hard that Mr. Smith implored the crowd to engage in a classic B-Boy approval gesture of waving their hands in the air. Then he relieved them of their trinkets by calmly asking them to keep their hands up and commanding, “Run the jewels.” Between their respective, indie imprints, Definitive Jux and Grind Time Official, El-P and Killer Mike aren’t hurting for paper like LL’s fictional character. But they’ve teamed up again to create an album that combines the B-boy classicism of a “Throw your hands in the air” chant with the brashness of a stickup at gunpoint.
About a year ago, most of us weren’t even aware Killer Mike and El-P knew each other. Then they dropped one of 2012’s best albums. And in a non-good kid, m.A.A.d city year, they likely would’ve outright taken the title of Best Hip Hop Album with R.A.P. Music. While there will be inevitable comparisons between both projects, the most obvious differences between R.A.P. Music and Run The Jewels are more microphone time for El-P and production that is more in line with El Producto’s work as a member of Company Flow.
A continual undercurrent of dissonance is present throughout the entire project. El-P layers digital blips, synths and live guitars (courtesy of Little Shalimar and Matt Sweeney) over cymbal clashes, classic 808-drums and jabbing, sometimes-staccato snares. It’s a harsh listen that’s likely more obscure to casual, Top-40 listeners than R.A.P. Music. That’s too bad for them, because Mike and El-P seemingly unleash every item in their B-boy tool kit this time around.
“Cowering like cowards cowering on concrete showers in Rikers Island / Victims, we the wolves that’s whylin’ / We often smile at sights of violence,” Mike barks on the opening title track. Aside from the alliteration, assonance and internal rhyme cadences, Mike also murks some old woman’s poodle and threatens to rob Prince William. This is conceptual Hip Hop of the highest order. And El-P matches Killer Mike bar for bar in what essentially becomes a friendly, rhyming competition. Producto compares his own behavior to maneuvering on a wayward water vessel, on “Sea Legs” with the following:
“Maybe should’ve never started this path / Every time I get a chance to advance it’s backwards / No thanks to my very own actions / Get a couple good drinks in the kid I can flip on a friend, take a drug fuck a chick that I shouldn’t / Oh god I am one of those mad men…”
The dark humor and friendly competition are really unexpected bonus elements. In between warning us about drones (“DDFH”), and Mike and a stripper tripping on ‘shrooms and reenacting the mythological union of Isis and Osiris (“No Come Down”) there’s plenty to like. Some of the above will likely be lost on the dumbed-down, “turn up” crowd. But it’s difficult not to give the stamp of approval to any album featuring Prince Paul in vintage De La Soul album skit mode. Paul appears on “Twin Hype Back” as “Chest Rockwell” with overtures for some wholesome anal sex after dropping a half a molly in his date’s Mountain Dew. All the while, Mike and El-P are one-upping each other with boasts of respectively getting their bellies squeezed like bagpipes and rocking church socks during sex.
If there’s a knock on Run The Jewels, it’s that it won’t be particularly accessible to those who have been desensitized by hours of dumbed-down radio and television programming. This is especially true during the summer months when most singles feature heavy doses of molly, Ciroc and bullshit lyrics. If anything, Killer Mike and El-P may have raised standards (and expectations) incredibly high last time around. Either way, one has to think the pair will once again find themselves on more than a few Album of the Year lists with Run The Jewels.