Review Summary: The true sound of hip-hop in 2013.
Run The Jewels is an impressive album in part due to the incredible chemistry that the artists have. Collaboration has always been a big part of the hip-hop scene in general, but this specific combination of El-P’s progressive beats and intelligent lyricism with Killer Mike’s dirty-south flow and passionate, aggressive political commentary stands out because of the skill and effort of two of rap’s most overlooked masterminds. Each of the ten tracks on their debut (as Run The Jewels, lest we forget Killer Mike’s R.A.P. Music
, produced by El Producto himself) is bursting with carefully structured verses of intelligent social commentary, clever one-liners, that classic “hard as nails” attitude, and clear intent. There is some “fun” rap to be found here, naturally (the constant boasting on “36” Chain”, Killer Mike’s verse on “No Come Down” where he describes having sex with a stripper while tripping on MDMA and mushrooms), but the overall tone that these two set is one of passionate individualism: the idea of staying true to oneself in a decaying world filled with fake people, fake ideas, and lack of respect for the human spirit.
Before I slip into a rant about how pure this album’s message is and how expertly it is executed (believe me, it’s coming), let’s talk about its pure aesthetic appeal. It would be criminal to not mention the production – El-P truly is one of the best in the game. Living in Brooklyn, he was a student of hip-hop from a very young age. His production grew along with the genre, through the 90s and into the 2000s, always driving the underground wild with his innovation and vision. Run The Jewels is the pinnacle of his life’s work in this respect: it represents all that his sound has been building towards. It is a progressive sounding album, but it’s still clearly rooted in the classic old-school vibe that El-P was born into. As certain other producers of high profile rap albums in 2013 attempt to move the genre forward by awkwardly splicing in screams, industrial noise, and other various transparent attention-grabbing techniques without much thought towards cohesion or longevity, El-P has raised the bar with thoughtful, futuristic sounds that catch the ear and fit the tone of the lyrics perfectly. He’s taken no shortcuts here, but has rather organically come to a place in his career where he can create ear-catching, hard-hitting beats seemingly effortlessly. His vision and skill are nearly unmatched, and Killer Mike must realize he’s the luckiest rapper in the world every time El-P presents him with the next perfect canvas upon with the two will create their beautiful art. And on one canvas the two emcees share the space brilliantly, complimenting each other’s strengths and bouncing off each other seamlessly as they slip from verse to verse. Each of them seems so familiar with the other’s style that it seems impossible to imagine that their first official collaboration was just last year. Their chemistry is simply stunning – the two sound as natural together as some of rap’s most legendary combos.
It’s not just the sound of their voices that works well together, but their lyrical content too. Their styles are somewhat different, but have both been refined on this album to aim towards the same ultimate effect. Killer Mike focuses a lot on the plight of marginalized people in the USA, using passion and aggression to deliver a powerful message. He is often more explicit than El-P, who likes to create lots of complex metaphors for the purpose of analyzing the dysfunctional social structure upon which our culture has been built. They are both committed to decrying their government’s unpunished crimes and the American people’s failure to breed and encourage individualism and critical thought. Though the album never comes across as “preachy”, and though there are plenty of not-so-serious topics too, the album’s unifying message shines brightly through on every track.
But it all comes to a glorious pinnacle on the album’s defining statement: its closing track. On “A Christmas Fuc
king Miracle”, the legendary duo (status pending) leave their listeners with an inspiring piece of music that is flooring in its emotional impact and pointed message. It contains no hook or chorus, just two of the most emotionally invigorating and passionate verses ever penned. El-P brings the album’s aggressive tone into focus in a moment of realization and clarity when he directs his festering anger towards a message of hope and confidence in oneself. Here’s a rather long excerpt that I could absolutely not bring myself to cut down:
“The most impressionable minds get molested and informed by manipulating forces. Don’t fret little man, don’t cry; they can never take the energy inside you were born with. Knowing that, understand you could never be poor. You already won the war, you were born rich. You can only take the energy you had going back to the realm or the home where your lord is. Whoever, whatever that lord is, couldn’t give a fuck if you ever made fortunes. Fuck anyone ever trying to run that bum shit, send ‘em to the flames where the orcs live. Them and the lost minds thinking they’re smarter than us don’t understand love’s importance. And we can weaponize that, bring ‘em back to the truth where the ashes and dust got formed in.”
It’s a touching piece of lyricism that reminds us to stay true to ourselves, no matter what the outside world is trying to do to us. Success in life is what you define it to be, and you fail as an individual when you let another person define it for you. For El-P and Killer Mike, success is staying true to their music amidst all the noise surrounding the superficial superstars of their genre in their own way, paying little attention to shallow trends and meaningless drivel. An appropriate amount of time after this poignant verse has ended, enough to begin to let its message sink in, the beat suddenly picks back up and the stage is set perfectly for Killer Mike to close the album in gripping fashion. He touches on the content of the previous verse, mentioning his undying desire to turn down those offering reprieve in exchange for submission, and asserts his dominance over those that dare to question him. In a classy finishing touch, he ends the album’s final verse with a touching shout-out to two of his fallen comrades, Pimp-C and Camu, to remind us once again that what is important in this life is simply love. Nothing else really matters in the long run. We can only grow by never forgetting who we truly are and remembering the importance of love in a world of evil, corrupting forces.