Functional hip-hop duos are a rarity these days. It takes work to balance out strong personalities that have a lot to say. It makes you respect what a group like OutKast accomplished, and it explains the appeal of Killer Mike and El-P on last year’s ambitious Run The Jewels debut album. Hip hop hadn’t been this fun in a long time, and RTJ made it even more fun by offering their album for free. Run The Jewels 2 is released in the same spirit of accessibility to music and real hip hop, from two artists who’ve been in the game for over a decade, doing things their way.
RTJ2 is a fierce release. The album’s opening track, “Jeopardy,” is the ultimate “LISTEN UP!” moment. In an interview with The Fader, Killer Mike said, “Let’s put that long, dope, dark-ass verse to let muthafuckas know that this shit is REAL for the next 40 minutes or so.” And if you didn’t get the message on the first track, then it’s surely chiseled into your core on “Oh My Darling Don’t Cry.” It’s one of the rawest and hardest hip-hop beats to come out in years with Mike and El-P trading bars. The bass is so encapsulating, and Mike’s “oh my” peppered into the background makes it a haunting experience.
They test each other’s hip-hop fluency often. It’s almost as if they’re competing to see who can rap faster, better and more articulately. But there’s a darker undertone to this record than the first time around; they’re happy, but they’re also pissed. On “Lie, Cheat, Steal” Mike describes mass media chaos in an anti-Donald Sterling diatribe with “Like who really run dis/ Who really run that man who say he run dis?” Fitting coming from the guy who rapped “Fuck Ronald Reagan!” two years ago on the El-P-produced album R.A.P. Music.
Atmospheric vibes aren’t lost either. On “Early,” Beyonce producer Boots assumes the role that UK post-trip-hop artist Until The Ribbon Breaks had on RTJ’s “Job Well Done.” On “Crown,” El-P elongates the punctuation of “You’ll become death/ You will take breath” and it’s the little details that build the distinct feel of their music.
The signature El-P grimy bass lines and futuristic effects are present throughout the production. He’s taken the polarizing Company Flow backpacker hip-hop flow and balanced it out with Mike’s socially conscious call-outs. On “All Due Respect,” Mike spits “Woke up in Nigeria, kicked out America/Case of malaria, shit got scarier” juxtaposed with El-P’s “I’m a thrill killer, I will test you/Just like daddy, fuckin’ left you.” It addresses the reality of the world, but it isn’t rap music for your parents. It’s angry and offensive and meant to be caustic.
On “Love Again (Akinyele Back),” Three Six Mafia’s Gangsta Boo makes an appearance, taking turns with Mike and El-P as they all objectify each other in a low-key statement. Male, female, whatever…It’s all out the door, and it’s Run The Jewels not just trying to make some indie hip-hop release. They drop conscious flows, but they can bring the ratchet rhymes typical of Southern rap too. It shows an understanding of not only the direction of hip hop, but also of the evolution and prevalent music of the last decade.
Run The Jewels borrows from a range of hip-hop techniques. But in the end, El-P tells us in The Fader that “We just rap our asses off.” You can feel the effort with every syllable, that this music is coming from their very core. From the rolling bass line on “Angel Duster” to the album’s closing bars from Killer Mike: “Defeated the odds and went to war with the gods/Earned all our scars and came back straight,” this is a comprehensive essay on the style and vernacular of hip hop.