Run The Jewels

Artist: Run The Jewels Album: Run The Jewels Rating: 4 / 5

Jason Walsh, Music Critic

The times, they are a-confusin’ when it comes to the rap world. Way back in 2011, it seemed like Kanye West and Jay-Z were establishing some hip hop hegemony. Kanye had just released the magnum opus that is “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy,” and the two of them came together on “Watch The Throne” to claim themselves as the kings of hip hop.

Since then, though, things have changed significantly. Kanye released “Yeezus” this summer, an album some critics have called “anti-pop,” others have called “experimental” or “minimalist,” and most have called great – seemingly just because they don’t know what else to say about it.
Meanwhile, Hov has descended into full on art-collecting-rap with “Magna Carta Holy Grail,” an album that could not be less relatable.

With Kanye and Jay-Z both stepping sideways (if not down) this summer, there’s nobody clearly at the top of the hip hop world. That set the stage for Kendrick Lamar’s guest appearance on Big Sean’s “Control,” in which he calls out a dozen of his contemporaries by name, challenges hip hop to renew its old emphasis on lyricism and competition and then proceeds to call himself the King of New York (he’s originally from Compton). Rappers, rap journalists and fans obligatorily responded by freaking out on the Internet.

Although “Run The Jewels,” the new collaboration from El-P and Killer Mike, came out earlier in the summer than “Control,” it feels like a direct response.

The two have worked together before, most notably on Killer Mike’s 2012 effort “R.A.P. Music” (El-P produced the whole thing) and El-P’s 2012 album “Cancer 4 Cure” (Killer Mike dropping guest verses).

El and Mike clearly have a lot of chemistry and enjoy recording together; “Run The Jewels” sounds like 30 minutes of each one trying to outdo the other on the mic. “Run The Jewels” is pretty much nothing but Mike and El going for each others throats and for the throats of the rap world at large, something they have both been doing since the 90s.

The tone is set on the first and title track. El gives us “I don’t wanna sound unkind but the sounds I make are the sounds of the hounds that are howlin’ / under your bed I’m here growling, same time under the blanket you’re cowering.” Then, without missing a single beat, Mike jumps in with “Cowering like cowards cowering on concrete showers in Rikers Island.” There are more internal rhymes than you can count on this thing.

Next track “Banana Clipper” embodies the entire album’s aesthetic. For three solid minutes, El and Mike trade verses without so much as a chorus, hook or even a few beats in between. El issues a challenge to the competition: “You wanna hang? Bring your throat / I got stools and a rope.” Mike attempts to cram more syllables in his verse than El did. And repeat.

Fourth track “DDFH” changes topics a little bit; instead of wack MCs, Mike rails against power hungry cops. We get some of the political Killer Mike that was in full effect on “R.A.P. Music,” and El’s verse is also pointed and political.

Up next is “Sea Legs,” though, and we’re right back into the ring. Taking aim at the top, Mike spits out “there will be no respect for thrones” before going on to claim “I stand on towers like Eiffel, I rifle all your idols” and threaten to make lesser rappers “perish in Paris.”

Halfway through the album, we get a little bit of a breather with “Job Well Done,” where Mike and El basically claim to have caused the rap apocalypse. One of the few songs with an actual chorus, they bring in a guest artist to sing “So I think we’ve burned our bridges, but it’s difficult to tell / I’ve been walking through the ashes saying didn’t we do well?’”

And then El drops what I think is probably some of the most creative bragging ever put to wax, including “monks won’t immolate themselves until the record hits the shelves,” “yetis walk right out the woods to cop it without thinking about it,” “the bass makes a whale off the coast scream ‘Y’all gotta stop!” and “emperors that hear the tunes admit that they are nudists.”

The rest of the album finishes up in more or less the same way. “No Come Down” takes a quick break from braggadocio for some sex-and-drug-experiences rap, “Get It” finds Killer Mike threatening that “Mike’ll fuck a rapper’s life up like Mo’Nique did to Precious,” “Twin Hype Back” has a guest appearance from Prince Paul which feels like a little bit of a misstep and things slow down for the finale of “A Christmas Fucking Miracle” where Mike and El remember the past and complain about the present of the music industry.

The greatest strength of this record should be clear just from the format of this review: it is endlessly quotable, incredibly lyrical, overflowing with unbelievably technical rapping and hypercompetitive, both between Mike and El and the rest of the rap world.

In some ways, this is also its downfall. Like no other rap album in recent memory (not including El and Mike’s solo work), “Run The Jewels” requires active listening. If you’re not sitting down and reading the lyric sheet (which, unsurprisingly, comes as a PDF when you get the album), “Run The Jewels” is not really any fun.

There are no catchy hooks or choruses, the beats are standard El-P fare but don’t compel you to dance or anything and both of them rap so quickly that you have no hope of keeping up. On ‘36” Chain,’ maybe the best song on the album, Mike spits out 250 words in the first 80 seconds. There’s so much internal rhyming, repetition, dense references and more that you’ll be lost if you’re not reading along. Five-plus times of listening and reading, I still find myself pausing, rewinding and rereading to be able to know what’s happening.

As a statement of competition, “Run The Jewels” is also a mixed success. I’m pretty comfortable with saying Killer Mike and El-P are both better lyricists and maybe even rappers than the vast majority of mainstream artists. If those were the only two criteria by which we judged hip hop, they should be Kanye and Jay-Z.

But after listening to “Run The Jewels,” you realize why it could never work. They constantly position themselves as under-appreciated, outsiders and underdogs. If they ever got the success they probably deserve, who could they rail against?

If you want the lyrical, competitive and technically impressive rap Kendrick seems to think we all do, then you can’t find anything better than “Run The Jewels.” Sit down, read along and be blown away. However, if you want something fun to put on at a party, you’re better off with Kanye and Kendrick for now.