Run the Jewels ‘Run the Jewels 2’ – Review

30 Nov

I first encountered Killer Mike on Outkast’s mega selling 2003 record ‘Speakerboxxx/The Love Below.’ He turned up on a couple of Big Boi’s tracks and elevated the songs. His voice was distinctive and instantly attention grabbing – a throaty growl that sounded menacing, but also, somehow, likable. You could hear the mechanics of his flow operating at full capacity, straining to keep up with the ideas pumping out of his head. His verses sounded like somebody pushing their luck underwater, holding their breath for as long as possible before finally, triumphantly, rising to the surface. Just as you thought sense was lost, his verses fizzled in to focus at the last moment, and he sounded exhausted.

It was nearly another decade before Killer Mike came to my attention again, through the success of his 2013 records ‘R.A.P Music’ and ‘Run the Jewels’. The former was a storming audio assault produced and performed in a dramatic, but fairly by the book, gangsta rap style. ‘Run the Jewels’ was different. A collaboration with ELP (who also had a successful 2012 with his ‘Cancer for Cure’ record), it sounded like nothing else released that year. Compared to the stodgy, over-produced, badly timed, overrated and pompus ‘Watch the Throne’ album, on which the two biggest stars in hip hop got together (errr Kanye and Jay Z), ‘Run the Jewels’ was a vital collaboration from two underdogs on the attack. They had something to say and they said it with more energy, charisma and brute force then just about anyone else you could name. The world had dismissed them as being past it, but hat’s just the way they liked it; they used the element of surprise to make their mark.

A year later we have ‘Run the Jewels 2’, an equally high octane record that is nonetheless more considered, more serious and more ambitious. It lacks the element of surprise that its predecessor had and it misses some of the spontaneity and goofiness, but it’s still a remarkable statement in its own way.

A large part of the record’s success is due to the persona of Killer Mike. As I said earlier, he manages to be menacing and almost teddy bear cute at the same time. He’s a larger than life figure who is capable of being whatever he needs to be, depending on the situation. In a way he’s a cartoon version of menacing, like the gory hand featured on the front cover. Both ELP and Killer Mike are likeable, which is not something to ignore at the moment – just about every other rapper on the scene, from Kanye, all the way down, are infamous for their arrogance and off-handedness. These two are funny, empathetic, considerate, approachable and book smart as well as street smart, which makes ‘Run the Jewels’ a fairly unique proposition in 2014.

In a way ‘Run the Jewels’ feels like a comeback album, from two veterans who want to be successful but on their terms. They want to be let in to the party, but only if their mates are invited. Thus we get the first meaningful verse Zack De La Roche of Rage Against the Machine has contributed to an album this century, as well as drumming from Blink 182’s Travis Baker. These are not the credible, oh-so-cool guests you would expect to find on such a anticipated record but they work brilliantly. Each one brings their A-game in a way nobody would have expected. Best of all the guests is Gangsta Boo who adds some deliciously vulgar verses to ’Love Again’, which contains the most lurid, and mind-numbingly catchy hook you’re going to hear this year. ‘Love Again’ is the most throwaway track on here, but it contains some interestingly progressive ideas about sexual politics, and in Mike’s gross excess, and Boo’s even more explicit excess, manages to present a new and positive spin on some Hip Hop gender based cliches.

That’s true of just about ever song on here – lyrics that on the surface can appear blunt, extreme and shocking actual speak to some disturbing but necessary truths about society and culture. In under 35 minutes Killer Mike and ELP blitzkrieg through some of the most important topics facing us today; racism, crime, sexism, ignorance and ‘fuckboys’ – which includes just about everyone who goes against their grain. This is a deceptively enjoyable album with severe seriousness lurking below the surface. Throughout the album there is contempt for everbody in positions of power, and an idea prevails that drastic action is needed NOW. They have no time for weak liberals who protest but get nothing done (one of many put downs: ’facist slave you protest to get in a fucking lookbook‘). They apologise to Martin Luther King for their bluntness. In the book of Mike and E.L.P, violent action is needed.

On the amazing ‘Close Your Eyes’ they state exactly what needs to be done and how. ‘we killing em from freedom cos the tortured us for boredom, and even if some good ones die, fuck it the lord all sort em.’ If this sounds over the top then remember what is happening in America at the moment with the Michael Brown controversy. Lines from this song seem almost prophetic, such as when LP says ‘I can’t even relax without hearing a siren.’ The rapping on this song is insane, on a purely sensorary level it’s thrilling but the lines read just as well on the page. Take in this verse: ‘Chilly conditions create a villian, the villian becomes a vision, the vision becomes a fallacy, vengence on all the vicious, liars and politicians, propheters of all the prisons, the four head engravers, inslavers of men and women, including members of clergy who rule on you throw religion, and strip the kids to the nude and tell em God will forgive em.’

From this point on the album becomes a mesmerising political work of art. Bad protest songs ask vague questions (see Neil Young‘s recent ‘Who‘s Gonna Stand Up‘), decent ones identify the problems and great ones present solutions. Not only does ’Run the Jewels 2’ present solutions, it does so in a way that is engaging, entertaining and will appeal to disillusioned youth. Yes, it’s crude, brash and sometimes misses the mark but on the whole ’Run the Jewels’ is extraordinary. In strictly musical terms it’s simple and old-fashioned; the production is far from innovative and you’ll find much better technical rappers than E.L.P and Mike. But Run the Jewels has a vibrancy and message that makes it a necessary album in 2014.

8.5/10

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