opinion byBRENDAN FRANK
Michael Render and Jaime Meline; Killer Mike and El-P: two rappers on the brink of middle age, transmitting diamond-hard rap bangers from some freaky dystopian future. They’re here to warn you, and they’re here to rupture your eardrums. RTJ2, the duo’s second outing as Run the Jewels, picks up exactly where its predecessor left off, using El-P’s slash-and-burn productions as a battle ground for some of the most enthralling verbal wars you’ll hear all year. An intriguing guest list in tow (seriously, did you think you would see Zach de la Rocha again?), Run the Jewels are every bit as irate as they were the first time around.
Mike and El-P compliment each other in such an effortless manner, it’s not at all surprising that they’ve created three albums together in the past three years. Both rappers are clearly in their comfort zones, elevating and challenging one another where the occasion requires. The aesthetics and delivery of RTJ2 are very similar to Run the Jewels; the biggest differences can be found in the lyrics. Whereas Run the Jewels was comprised mostly of creative wordplay and fiery braggadocio, RTJ2 possesses more of a social conscience, mainly due to Mike. He’s always had a bone to pick with the police, and recently penned a moving essay on the killing of Michael Brown. “We have essentially gone from being communities that were being policed by people from those communities to being policed by strangers. That’s no longer a community, that’s an area that’s under siege.” he told CNN back in August.
This indignation has bled into RTJ2, and nearly all of Mike’s verses touch on militarization, racial profiling, social stratification, or some combination of the above. Mike also stated in his interview that “I say very harsh, real and brutal stuff… but at the end I always offer some kind of resolution.” This is probably best captured on “Oh My Darling Don’t Cry”, as he simultaneously glorifies and cuts down the gangster persona he occasionally depicts: “He hanging out the window I hold the wheel/One black one white/We shoot to kill/That fuckboy life ’bout to be repealed”.
Mike also loves a good conspiracy. “Who really run this?/Who really run that man who say he run this … Who really fund this/Who really fund who say he fund this?” he spits on “Lie, Cheat, Steal”. Conversely, El-P mostly sticks to his signature rhyme stacks – dizzying in their complexity and irregularity – with less of an overt agenda than his counterpart. He does take exception on occasion. When he does, it takes multiple listens to parse everything out compared to Mike’s eye-level observations: “We run this spot like a Chinese sweatshop/Don’t stop/Work a worker ‘til his chest pop/I’m cardiac arrested, I’m so invested/I’m self-invented,” he offers on “Oh My Darling Don’t Cry”.
For all of this seriousness, the duo still have a sense of when to let loose. “Love Again” sets the bar for lewdness, and makes Danny Brown’s “i will” seem like a PG love story. The exploration of heavier themes has zero impact on how much fun this album is. The transitions between songs are non-existent, giving the feel of a manic, multi-part carnival ride. El-P’s production, assisted by Little Shalimar, is full of droning synths, triple-time hi-hat ticks, and bombastic orchestrals. “All Due Respect”, which features blink-182’s Travis Barker on percussion, is his most interesting effort, toeing the line between riot-inciting street performance and maximalist party tune. “Blockbuster Night Part 1” is a close second, popping and slithering around hilarious lines like “Top of the morning/My fist to your face is fucking Folgers.”
As a hip-hop act, Run the Jewels feel like they’re on the precipice of something new, an idealized blend of old-school tropes, gritty lyrics and an eye to the future. The closest sonic analogue that comes to mind is The Money Store, an album that strikes on a visceral level before absorbing you into its very real, very decrepit universe. RTJ2 isn’t quite the game-changer The Money Store was, but it makes no attempt to hide its desire to knock its progenitors out cold and scamper off with the crown. El-P and Killer Mike are operating at such a high level, it’s easy to imagine them succeeding someday. B+