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Run the Jewels ruin lives on nuanced, brutal sequel LP

By Dan Willis / Staff Writer

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Run the Jewels

Run the Jewels 2

Grade: A

There’s a moment toward the end of “All Due Respect”, a highlight from hip-hop duo Run the Jewels’ second eponymous album, when the following takes place: El-P tells you that your parents are going through a tumultuous divorce that is entirely your fault and then tags in Killer Mike who reveals that he is your new stepfather and that he is going to do a terrible job at it. And all of that happens in about 11.4 seconds. 

Run the Jewels can ruin your life in less time than it takes a 1975 Coupe DeVille to go from zero to 60. El-P and Killer Mike’s mastery of the medium, plus their chemistry as performers, makes them capable of pretty much anything.

Their unlikely collaboration came about in 2009 as a left-field blind date curated by Jason DeMarco of Williams Street Records, the label responsible for the musical property of Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim programming block. Three years later, they had finally chosen a name and completed their lean and forceful self-titled debut. By then, producer and rapper El-P — also the founder and CEO of influential underground hip-hop label Definitive Jux — had eased off his impressionistic, overwrought flow and polished up his old-school, lo-fi beats considerably. 

Meanwhile, lead MC Killer Mike — an underappreciated staple of the Atlanta hip-hop scene — started incorporating some East Coast devices into his staunchly Southern flow, while also finding an effective platform for his politically urgent vox populi. The weirdo cast aside his underground contrarianism and the underdog finally found someone who understood him. Run the Jewels was the sound of two friends simply making the album that they wanted to.

And Run the Jewels 2 does nothing but up the ante at every turn. It’s more political, more fun, more vulgar, more nuanced and more brutal than the debut — or really any hip-hop release in recent memory. So what’s changed?

Well, for one, El-P’s production style has changed. On previous releases, his snare sounds resembled more the spreading of mortar than any conceivable drum, while his analog circuits ran too hot to ever truly be in tune. But here, the beats are crisp and clean and yet still undeniably El, thanks to the consultation of obscure Brooklyn-based producer Little Shalimar. The instrumentals are also delightfully dynamic: “Oh My Darling Don’t Cry” begins by carving out a cavernous space between sternum-shaking bass and whirring high frequencies, but it ends on a high-energy synth workout with no patience for negative space. Meanwhile, “Jeopardy” vacillates between dry, skittering percussion and a snare that’s no thwack and all reverb — plus it even has some improvised trombone solos. As adventurous as both Killer Mike and El-P are, they’ve never put out something as intricate as this.

Lyrically, the album is just as astounding. Sex, drugs and violence are used for effect, resulting in instantly quotable lines that are by turns harrowing, hilarious and admirable. And this mastery of medium is deftly counterbalanced by the vehemence of their message. El-P’s nervous nihilism and Killer Mike’s earthy storytelling prevent their more political songs from slipping into newsboy cap social consciousness. “Angel Duster,” for example, thrives on exactly this tension between frustration and salvation — when El ends his half of the hook on “we’re still here running around, screaming/they’re still here pointing and laughing,” Mike picks it right back up with “got hope for the living/got prayers for the dead.”

Run the Jewels are two intelligent hip-hop virtuosos who grew up among the old guard, but want nothing more than to go forward. They brag, joke, philosophize and spit acid with the best, but they also refuse to be slaves to any trends or expectations. And Run the Jewels 2 is a perfectly no-frills mission statement. It’s the product of two friends who want to make the best music they can. Plus, it goes hard. Like, life-ruiningly hard.

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Run the Jewels ruin lives on nuanced, brutal sequel LP