“Play it loud and pray that when it all goes down, Killer Mike and El-P are on your side.”
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Parker Evans is an economics senior and Mustang News music columnist.
The most fun rap album of 2013 doesn’t have a single hands-in-the-air chorus. It doesn’t have a catchy ear worm or a parade of guest verses or even a sing-along hook. No, Run the Jewels doesn’t need such frivolities to have a good time. Bashing you upside the head and then taunting your shortcomings is more in line with Run the Jewels’ idea of fun. And man, is it fun.
Run the Jewels is an album by and for super villains, and the origin story is appropriate. Collaborators El-P and Killer Mike both released solo albums at roughly the same time in May 2012. El-P produced Mike’s well-received R.A.P. Music, and the favor was returned with a couple of pounding guest verses on El-P’s Cancer 4 Cure. The rappers shared a reputation for political consciousness and a generous dose of passionate energy, and the unholy alliance they forged became Run the Jewels. Their self-titled album was released for free this past June under Fool’s Gold (the same label that put out Danny Brown’s XXX for free), but the expanded edition will drop later this month.
Run the Jewels is about us vs. everyone else, and over the course of an album, the hip-hop duo makes a strong case for why you should stand with them instead of against them. Between the big-time boasting and mostly unprintable threats of violence and crime, there’s not enough time to breathe, and it’s clear Mike and El-P are having the time of their lives. Both rappers’ previous work has been defined by a much more serious tone. Even El-P’s jokes and wordplay on his solo efforts seem to be through gritted teeth, but Run the Jewels has a crazed grin plastered on its face.
As a producer, El-P’s work has always been the gold standard for alternative rap, but he’s saved some of his best work for Run the Jewels. The opening title track might be Producto’s masterpiece: The quivering organ and manic bongos add a cinematic touch that wouldn’t be out of place underscoring a James Bond villain. The hooks on “Get It” and “No Come Down” are a bit overlong, but the verses are so entertaining you might not even notice.
The political lean that characterized each rapper’s solo work is mostly absent here, considering a slam on drone strikes or Reaganomics would take away from the barely-restrained energy. These guys are two of the most self-aware rappers out there, and the violence is played for dark comic effect (see the video for “36” Chain” if you have any doubts), but the braggadocio is much more than just a parody of rap thug poseurs. This is the kind of confidence and swagger earned over a decade in the business, and the unbridled aggression is a welcome throwback to the golden age of gangsta rap.
The spotlight is split straight down the middle, and the verses and bars get split 50-50. That means we get to hear the duo feed off each other’s energy in some kind of gloriously frenetic mutual symbiosis, but their contrasting flows are what keep Run the Jewels fresh. Killer Mike delivers heavy blow after heavy blow, but he’s still more than capable of nimble maneuvers (check out his narrative verse on “No Come Down”) and both high and low comedy. El-P’s feverish, paranoid flow seems under control for once; Run the Jewels might be the first time he’s ever spent a whole album actually working within the context of the beat instead of his tendency toward word soup.
The centerpiece of the album is “Sea Legs.” Over woozy bass and hovering synths, each half delivers a grade-A verse, but Killer Mike’s is a contender for verse of the year. It’s rife with slams on rap’s royalty, but the snowballing energy builds in the final few bars to a dizzying crescendo.
Outside of a strange tacked-on verse from Big Boi and a welcome drop-in from Prince Paul’s hilariously sleazy Chest Rockwell character, Run the Jewels is largely the work of two men. This past week, El-P confirmed on Twitter there will be a sequel. Expectations will be high, but you’re doing yourself a disservice if you haven’t already sought out the original. Play it loud and pray that when it all goes down, Killer Mike and El-P are on your side.
Check out and listen to Run the Jewel’s self-titled album (pictured below) that dropped this past June in anticipation for the expanded edition set to release later this month: