First impressions can often be misleading, so when the mooted link-up between a darkly comic Brooklyn beatsmith much-steeped in dark comics and an Atlantan emcee whose defining moment in the public eye had been a decade-old Outkast guest spot became a concrete reality, it turned heads. Doubters were proved doubly wrong last year by Cancer 4 Cure and R.A.P. Music, the latter in particular showing off just how successful the combination of Killer Mike’s polemical snarl and El-P’s “eye for distortion” could prove. Only 12 months on from the aforementioned 1-2 sucker punch and sitting at merely a touch over half an hour, it would be all too easy to assume that this freebie from Fool’s Gold is something of an afterthought; a hastily compiled bumper pack of offshoots, a fun but ultimately disposable romp, a budget Watch The Throne, a little bit of trunk rattle and a whole lot of chest beating to tide fans over as another tour revs. As Mike so eloquently puts it, “fuck outta here!”
However much I’d love to clock out on one paragraph (so very much), for argument’s sake let’s work backwards through those claims so I can at least partially justify my enormous paycheque. It would be remiss to suggest Run The Jewels‘ calling card is anything else than unbridled aggression, primarily seeing as you are bludgeoned round the head with it from the word Go. On the opening track alone Mike threatens to simultaneously rob a woman and shoot both her poodle and baby over a nefarious, gnarled beat that actually manages to sound as if the two self-described villains are spitting fire while encircling a crime scene. Although El-P rarely strays from the well-worn formula of deep rumbles and claustrophobic use of space to invoke the kind of post-apocalyptic landscape he traverses lyrically, the toughness abates intermittently, allowing queasy G-funk lines or skittering snare rushes to underline tempo shifts. Taken as a whole, the sheer volume of violence on display – beaten bodies, sliced jazz hands, strangled necks, split nipples – might appear gratuitous, were it not delivered with a wry wink. When El brags in “Job Well Done” that “priests take the cock out their mouths to hum along when the chorus drops,” or Mike sends a sympathy letter to the mother of his victims telling her that “she raised a bunch of fuck boys, next time do better, bitch,” that wanton brutality masquerades as grin-inducing humour, the sort of braggadocios bravado that few rappers can convincingly pull off without sounding immensely tedious.
Another factor that characterises Run The Jewels is how Mike and El-P vibe off one another. At times it feels like witnessing two gassed kids trading bars in a smoked-out basement, the constantly ramping levels of ferocious agility punctured by infrequent hollers of glee as they steamroll through a white-hot session, rapping out of their skin. That unassailable dynamic only fractures by introduction of some less-than-stellar guest spots: Until The Ribbon Breaks’ hook is underdeveloped, Big Boi phones in an unusually clumsy verse and even Prince Paul’s sleazeball antics merely colour the track (read: turn blue). Make no mistake, this is the Jaime & Mike Show, a buddy comedy with no moral compass; a friendship so strong to lead one fan on Youtube to claim that it means more to him than any of his own personal relationships. Any comparisons to Watch The Throne falter in that respect: there, you had a constant my-dad-is-bigger-than-your-dad game of oneupmanship lingering just below surface level (nb: even with less effort than usual, a lithe Ye decimated a mechanical Jay), undermining any legitimacy in their joint lunge for immortality; here, the two resemble a pair of lecherous neighbourhood thugs who work in tandem to maximise utility.
Explicit mention of the contrast is made on “Sea Legs,” wherein Mike claims “no respect for the The Thrones.” That track is perhaps the most interesting of the ten on display, a warm atmospheric interlude cleverly teeing up the depth charge drop, and boasting El’s most dexterous verse on deck. Having spent their entire careers operating outside the mainstream, consciously eschewing its recycled tropes, they now find themselves drifting towards a wider acceptance. In spite of the challenges associated with bridging that gap between audiences, they stand defiant, galvanised by the newfound position of vaunted elder statesmen. Any fears of compromised ideals are conclusively snuffed on the bloodletting bookend “A Christmas Fucking Miracle,” which bluntly underscores their deep-rooted distrust of the establishment. Both a tale to reflect their harsh upbringings and a hopeful message to remain resolute in the face of unlawfully imposing authority, it ends the record on a strange note, with both men sounding downcast, although not entirely defeated.
Whereas on Cancer 4 Cure or R.A.P. Music that sort of dark heft wouldn’t seem out of place, here it juts out. Largely replacing the stream of government-directed bile (something that seems even more pertinent now than thirteen months ago) is a supremely clever referential streak, carrying plenty of internal continuity – “Big Beast in a cage,” “Drones over BKLYN” – and as well as the spilling forth a decade’s worth of shared experiences; a common bond, 900-odd miles removed. Everything from Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!!! to Demolition Man gets the treatment, and on “Twin Hype Back” alone Audio Two, Shyne, Slick Rick, Eric B & Rakim and the titular brothers get shout outs. While they may be happy to hark back to the era in which they grew up in, the most obvious signifier, as was the case with Killer Mike’s solo LP last year, is a certain form of rough, gritty, oft furious hip-hop that crystallised in the early ’90s – Mike, after all, “still spells Amerikkka with the triple K.”
So hardly all brawn and no brains, marked differently from any other recent all-star tag-teams, and by no means dispensable. You would, however, be right about the victory lap thing. While there are a few less essential tracks and the record could have done with a tad more variety on the production front, the combination of muscular force and trim run-time keeps the energy high throughout, and in doing so extends 2012’s blistering run of form. What really tips it into the upper regions is the combination of a loose, pass-the-mic feel with pop culture quips stacked high, delivered in earnest over bruising beats. It denotes a refreshing shift away from the prevailing trend in mainstream rap of placing syllable drops in tandem with weighty sub-bass for double emphasis; the knotty wordplay and sledgehammer blows found across Run The Jewels shows it can be done both ways. Ultimately, this is sound of two dons recognising their rightful place at the top of the summit, surveying their kingdom and proceeding to piss all over it. And it sounds fucking glorious.