Run the Jewels - Run the Jewels 2
Released October 24, 2014
By Chris Matei
We live in a sequel-obsessed culture. As a result, attempts to recapture the magic that made something great the first time around can turn beloved cultural touchstones into cheap, hollow cash cows. In light of this, it’s a telling note that El-P (New York’s Jamie Meline) and Killer Mike (Atlanta’s Michael Render) have christened their second album Run the Jewels 2. This is a sequel in the best way possible. It’s a Godfather Part II: a second act that takes a captivating story and refines it into something with grand depth.
Did you like the room-rattling production that characterized 2013’s Run the Jewels? Its mix of gritty nihilism and chest-beating, hater-crushing bombast? The infectious dynamism of its twin leads, who have made a habit of storming on stage to the strains of Queen’s We are the Champions night after night on tour, pulverizing audiences, and hugging it out like the best of friends afterward?
RTJ2 keeps all of these elements intact and digs even deeper into what made them great. The first words you hear on record are Mike's, in the midst of a declaration of murderous vocal booth intent: “I’m gonna bang this bitch the FUCK out!” With that, the album sets off on the warpath, ready to violently discorporate anything and anyone foolish enough to stand in its way. Both of the group’s members are operating at full tilt here, possibly in the best shape of their careers, delivering verses that crackle with energy over the massive heft of the beats supporting them. With the whole record clocking in at just under 40 minutes, the number of punches being thrown per square inch of album space is unprecedented.
All Due Respect finds the pair at the height of their capacity for nastiness, backed by a whole brigade worth of percussion artillery from former Blink-182 drummer Travis Barker. Blockbuster Night Part 1 and All My Life serve up fantastic damage over stalking monster bass lines. Oh My Darling Don’t Cry builds on the same foundation, breaking into a full-on rager in its final two verses with synths squalling and Killer Mike pushing into an even higher gear to deliver Migos-style triplet lines. Lie, Cheat, Steal impresses with a titanic chorus - I can hear audiences roaring along to it already - and tricky high-speed lyrical tradeoffs.
The only step even slightly out of place is the Gangsta Boo feature Love Again (Akinyele Back), which drips with a comical amount of lewdness and weirdness. The track honours an absurdly specific forebear - Akinyele’s circa-1996 cut Put It In Your Mouth. It’s not that Love Again is a bad song: it just feels out of place when set amid the tonal consistency present throughout RTJ2.
Despite its seemingly endless supply of bone-cracking braggadocio and visceral put-downs, RTJ2 saves its best moments for explorations of vulnerability and true-to-life honesty. El-P’s verse on Jeopardy opens with a reflection on his longstanding underground status: “Never been much of shit, by most measurements don’t exist” - and ends at a full-throated roar, proclaiming “Run the Jewels is the answer.” His rapping has always served as a method to rail against complacency, corruption, greed and excess: RTJ2 is his broadest, wittiest and most aggressive outlet to date.
Meanwhile, two of the album’s darkest cuts (Crown and the BOOTS-produced Early) find Killer Mike reflecting on painful details of his past life. Mike has become known for his deeply held sense of social justice, amplified by a vocal set of views on the recent racially charged police violence controversies that have taken centre stage in America. This kind of personal conviction brings out a passion and forcefulness to his delivery that no amount of standard rap bravado can match.
Did I mention that Zach de la Rocha shows up? The former Rage Against the Machine frontman was last rumoured to be working on a solo record with El-P at the controls. The album never materialized, but his and Meline’s friendship seems to have stayed current. A chopped up sample of de la Rocha’s voice provides the hook for mid-album highlight Close Your Eyes (and Count to Fuck.) He even gets a suitably nasty lick in on the song’s final verse, slinging slithery wordplay about Miles Davis and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? That trademark vocal register, a finely tuned engine for the delivery of feverish anti-establishment invective, is a delight to experience in this new context.
Rap fans of all stripes would do well to pay attention to Run the Jewels 2. It’s a forceful, momentous affair built by two seriously talented artists. Rarely does a collaborative record capture the giddy thrill of two minds unleashed and genuinely playing off of one another - and yes, I’m looking at you, Watch the Throne. RTJ2 never stoops to becoming a gaudy exercise in self-congratulation. It simply rocks.