2012′s worst-kept secret was that Killer Mike and El-P were musically made for each other. Not only do the two MC’s share similar thematic concerns and influences, but they also work off of each other in a friendly competition to see who is the dopest of the dope. Last year had Killer Mike coming out slightly ahead with the deep-fried funk of R.A.P. Music, which was produced by El-P around the same time as his own solo album, the kinetic Cancer 4 Cure. Really, it was the rap populace that won when these two cranked out back-to-back master classes, and that win carried over to the duo’s decision to formally team up for a collaboration. It’s here, it’s called Run The Jewels, and it is a hell of a good time.
The first word spoken on the album is, fittingly, “run.” There’s a sense of confrontational paranoia here, one that is more fun and outspoken that, say, El’s release last year (which was the kind of paranoia that holes you up in your room for days at a time). The targets now aren’t as political as in the past, nor are the stories being told that fantastically structured. Instead, Run The Jewels sounds like running through a crowded mall, fucking around and talking shit with your buddies, if your buddies were also an explosively powerful rapper and an innovative producer of earth-shaking jams. And at 33 minutes, it’s gone so quickly that you can’t help but run it back.
The highlights here are pretty much the track list; take the Big Boi-featuring “Banana Clipper”, which comes close to sounding a bit too much like Mike’s “Untitled” from R.A.P. Music (he even twists that song’s opening line for his first bar here: “You are witnessing elegance/ in the form of a black elephant” becomes “I move with the elegance of a black elephant”), but is improved by the more unhinged El’s verses, which give the menacing beat an even more psychotic lyrical backbone: “You want a hang, bring your throat/ I got stools and a rope,” he snarls in a knowing manner, joking but also not at all. Similarly playful (and massively enjoyable for most AFC East fans) is Mike’s diss on “36″ Chain”: “Nigga better pray for a ho like he Tebow though/ cause right now he stay losin’ like The Jets.”
Sometimes, the seemingly off-kilter nature of these sessions shows a bit too much, even if it remains a romp of delirious proportions, as it does on the sexually aggressive “Twin Hype Back”. The guys start by trading verses of their prowess in bed (shouts to El-P’s “They say that once a girl go Brooklyn, no more soft dick’ll do”) before dropping out for the most ridiculous moment in this album (and most others, too): Prince Paul comes in as Chest Rockwell, the sleaziest of sleazes, for a hilarious interlude and outro. Let’s just say that his seduction technique involves a glass of Beefeater gin and a brand-new deck of Uno cards. It works better than it has any right to, especially with the robo-funk that El-P drops in behind him.
For an album of almost pathological braggadocious one-ups, Run The Jewels does have some introspective moments, the quiet among the bombings of your subconscious, so to speak. Not coincidentally, these happen to come in the longest tracks on this small slice of boisterous rap: “Sea Legs” is almost minimal by El’s production standards (in the same way that Yeezus was “minimal,” anyway), the song eschews the back and forth nature of the tracks surrounded it to give each MC a proper verse. Mike’s is the superior of the two, a bombastic threat that benefits from his natural booming voice as he spits “People praying to the gods, but the gods ain’t even listening/ Don’t matter if you’re Muslim, Hebrew, Christian/ When death runs in the distance there will be no Mercy me’s.” It’s brutal and it’s enthralling, two rappers going hard as hell just because there’s no one to stop them.
On the opposite end comes the album closer, the deliciously-titled “A Christmas Fucking Miracle”, which begins innocently enough with sleigh bells before an explosion of drone comes out of nowhere (although, really, should we be surprised at this point?). No hook needed, this is pure storytelling and commentary, complete with oblique references to the 1% (Mike is an Occupy supporter) and the fight back towards equality. El’s verse finds him at his calmest and most lucid, right on the brink of insanity but still clear-headed enough to question his lot in life: “Who are they to just take shit and hoard it?/ Who am I that I don’t get my portion?” He then swerves to address an unspecified stand-in ‘you’, ending his verse on the power of love over the corrupt. Then Mike comes in to take us home, his verse even more politically explicit than El’s, throwing back towards his incendiary “Reagan” on R.A.P. Music. Racism’s the target, and Mr. Render spits powerfully: “OK, honor y’all? No way/ Still spell America with the triple K.” That shuts it down, 10 songs of pure adrenaline and rapping that comes so easily that you forget how meaty these guys can get. Run The Jewels is a reminder that even when they’re throwing shit on the wall, Killer Mike and El-P don’t know how to miss. You better hope they’re not aiming for you.