Sunday, November 2, 2014

Run the Jewels 2 proves that sequels don't have to be disappointing

"The jewel runners, top tag team for two summers," Killer Mike says about Run The Jewels, the duo he formed with Def Jux founder El-P, on the opening track of their latest album.  He's not lying either.  The two first began collaborating in 2012, when El-P produced all of Killer Mike's R.A.P. Music and Mike delivered a blistering guest verse on El's Cancer 4 Cure.  Those were two of the best rap albums released that year, but apparently that wasn't enough for them.  They liked working with each other so much that they decided to start a group, releasing a short, but astounding album the next year (which landed at the number three on my best of 2013 list).  If they had just decided to make that one-off record and part ways, it would've been enough, yet here they are again with a fast and unlikely return a year later.

What makes them great as a pairing is that they're such different rappers.  El-P's got that idiosyncratic flow that he's evolved over the last 15 years into something serpentine and formidable.  It goes in, out, through, and above the beat, and he can shift gears to double time mid-verse with ease.  His lyrics are so dense, you need a fine-tooth comb to sort through them.  And he chooses his words with such precision that they come out of his mouth mellifluously.  Killer Mike, on the other hand, doesn't ride the beat so much as he stomps all over it.  His lyrics don't pack as many internal rhymes or as much assonance as El-P's, but he makes up for it through the sheer force with which he delivers them.  When he says "bunches and bunches, punches are thrown until you're frontless," you believe that he'll really do it.

What makes the two of them an even better pairing is that they're able to meld together so well, despite those differences.  In fact, some of the most thrilling moments of Run the Jewels 2 occur when the two of them are trading off little mini-verses back and forth ("All Due Respect," "Oh My Darling Don't Cry," "Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck)"), picking up on the other's last line and taking it in their own direction.  Their relationship is mutualistic -- they feed off of one another, elevating themselves in the process.  On "Blockbuster Night, Part 1" El-P does a highly alliterative verse, so Killer Mike follows suit.  Then on "Early," Killer Mike drops an introspective 16 about police corruption and El-P picks up the baton and delivers something just as thoughtful.

Their level of chemistry could easily make their music feel insular, but the guests on the album fit in quite nicely, even when they don't seem like they would.  It's unlikely that anybody read the Run the Jewels 2 tracklist a few months ago and reacted with anything other than a groan when they saw "feat. Zack de la Rocha."  But not only is "Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck)" the best song on the record, de la Rocha's verse is excellent.  After three minutes of Mike and El breathing fire over a sludgy beat, he comes up and delivers some of the most entertaining bars on the entire album, gleefully sputtering lines like "I'm miles ahead of you, you can sip my bitches brew" or "Philip AK Dickin' you."  "Love Again (Akinyele Back)" seems like it's just going to be the album's obligatory "let's talk about sex" song, but then Gangsta Boo -- that's right, Gangsta Boo! -- hops on the track and delivers an eye-popping, delightfully vulgar verse that brings some much-needed perspective.  Even the less front-and-center guest appearances work.  Boots shows up for the chorus of "Early" and gives it vocals that fit the mournful, introspective tone of Killer Mike and El-P's verses.  Elsewhere, Travis Barker appears on the wild, pummeling "All Due Respect," drumming like an eight-armed madman.

But not only does this feature some of the best rapping you're going to hear all year, it's also got the best production of 2014.  The first Run the Jewels album opted for a retro style, full of boom-bap beats that were pretty fun and lively.  That production bumped in its own right, but for the sequel, El-P gets a little bit darker, less minimalistic.  It's much closer to the twitchy, paranoid sound of his solo work.  In El's hands, the beats aren't just a structured loop to be rapped over, they're sonic petri dishes, teeming with all kinds of sounds and instruments.  They're a force to be tamed, lumbering about like a behemoth, rising and falling and shifting.  "Oh My Darling Don't Cry" might be the greatest example of that.  It's a dizzying, furious series of movements -- at one point it sounds like a paranoid baby babbling, at another it's like a dial-up machine that's possessed by a demon.  Scraggly guitars; saxophone squeals; low, buzzy synths -- everything under sun can be heard on this record.

If you still prefer the first album, nobody's going to fault you for having that opinion.  Run the Jewels 2 is so cerebral that it will probably end up being less relistenable than its predecessor.  There's also nothing as exhilarating as El-P's verse on "Sea Legs" and there's no tough talk as fearsome as, "Me and Mike will go twin hype and do a dance on your windpipe / Put those jazz hands back in your pants or get them shits sliced" here, though it comes close in both respects.  But this album is more dense, more versatile, and just more impressive.  Run the Jewels is a gift that keeps on giving; let's hope they'll be the top tag team for many summers to come.

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