If you’re a rap or hip-hop fan in 2014, you’ve probably been polishing your headphones in giddy anticipation of “Run The Jewels 2,” (RTJ2) the new album from the indie-rap duo of Killer Mike and El-P — aka Run The Jewels. The release is promoted is the “sequel” to last year’s excellent “Run The Jewels,” but after ruminating on the new album, I think the first “RTJ” could instead be considered a prequel. On “RTJ2,” El-P’s production is more dynamic and robust, fusing fierce, bone-rattling beats with more nuanced touches like grimy electric guitar and sputtering saxophones. Meanwhile, Mike and El-P trade verses like they’re part of a grand stage play — butting heads with boisterous bravado yet clearly feeding off each other’s infectious energy.
This is evident on a sequence of three spectacular bangers: “Oh My Darling Don’t Cry,” “Blockbuster Night Part 1” and “Close Your Eyes (and Count to F—).” Here, Mike and El-P string together line after line of brilliant wordplay and playful one-upmanship (“Bunches and bunches, punches is thrown until you’re frontless/oodles and oodles, bang bullets at suckas’ noodles,” Mike declares) set against some of the most aggressive beats El-P has ever produced. Even Zach de la Rocha of Rage Against the Machine gets caught up in the madness and nails a guest verse on “Close Your Eyes” (which includes a subtle yet wickedly clever Miles Davis shout-out).
The two gifted artists in Run The Jewels make strange bedfellows: Killer Mike is an African-American gangster rapper from Atlanta who has worked with Outkast, yet remained outside the spotlight of most music fans; El-P is a 39-year-old white rapper and producer from New York who has made waves in the alternative and experimental hip-hop scene. Despite their differences, the two have formed not just an artistic partnership but a great friendship — El-P has said he considers Mike to be like the brother he never had. On both a professional and personal level, it seems like both artists needed each other to produce what could be the magnum opus of their careers.
While the pair shows early on that they’ve mastered witty displays of braggadocio, the track that showcases RTJ’s versatility is the stunner “Early.” Here, Mike raps earnestly about being viciously arrested for a minor drug offense in front of his wife and kid while El-P rhymes from the perspective of an outsider, disillusioned and numb to the brutality that surrounds him. This song was apparently written before this summer’s shocking events in Ferguson, but those events have given the track’s themes a profound timeliness, allowing “RTJ2” to forever be anchored in this time and place in history.
Few rap albums this decade have risen to classic status — Kendrick Lamar’s “Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City” and Kanye’s “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” are probably the only two — but I will go out on a limb and add the remarkable “RTJ2” to that short list. It’s truly that sensational.