With Run the Jewels, El-P and Killer Mike have turned out one of the most passionately rapped and impeccably produced hip hop albums in recent memory.
Killer Mike’s R.A.P. Music and El-P’s Cancer 4 Cure were two of 2012’s standout hip hop records. Because these albums dropped at around roughly the same time, the two artists collaborated in the studio and went on the road to support each other’s efforts; the two discs became closely intertwined in the minds of critics and fans alike.
A year after the release of R.A.P. Music, a full-length studio collaboration between EL-P and Killer Mike was announced. The project was to be titled Run the Jewels with El-P completely handling its production—just as he did for the two earlier discs—and it would feature both artists sharing MC duties. In anticipation, the phrase “a match made in heaven” was thrown around a lot.
Thankfully, Run the Jewels lives up to all the hype. Compared to R.A.P. Music and Cancer 4 Cure, it is a stripped-down, brass tacks effort, but therein lies the excitement. Over the course of a terse 10 tracks, El-P and Killer Mike are clearly pushing each other on the mic, which makes nearly every verse on this album thoroughly engaging and often awe-inspiring.
On the title track, El kicks off the disc with the particularly “meta” line, “Oh dear, what the fuck do we have here?” El and Mike know just how anticipated this collaboration is, and their fast and fierce flows on this track prove that they’re determined to deliver right out the gate. A three-minute-long flurry of intensely-rapped, braggadocious gangster rhymes ensues, kicking the album off with a bang.
El-P’s instrumental on the title track smacks of a streamlined marriage of R.A.P. Music’s southern flare with Cancer 4 Cure’s cold futurism. It’s driven by a simple trap rhythm—upbeat tambourine, crisp snare, and murky bass—but the wonky textures El worked with so well last year fade in and out to accent the beat.
The instrumental on the following track, “Banana Clipper,” is a bit more hard-hitting than “Run the Jewels”’s. Featuring a southern-style trap beat, it has the typical snare and kick composition, but it also proffers Fantastic Damage-esque electronic crashes and some wobbly synth, which is reminiscent of Cancer 4 Cure. Thankfully, Mike, El, and guest rapper Big Boi serve up some verses that are forceful enough to accompany the beat with flair.
“36” Chain” offers a more complex beat: the digital textures are in the forefront this time, and there are airy, echoing bass hits in the background that provide the foundation of the track. Lyrically, El and Mike take little stabs at the rampant materialism celebrated by hip hop culture—for instance, pushing ostentatiousness to the point of absurdity with the hook, “I walk around like I got a 36” chain.”
The progressive production for the next track, “DDFH,” makes it somewhat reminiscent of R.A.P. Music’s multi-phased “Don’t Die.” The song offers a bit of sociopolitical commentary, one of Killer Mike’s specialities. The ironic hook and title of the song, “Do dope; fuck hope,” satirizes people’s propensity to immediately resort to medication when there might be better, healthier ways to go about fixing their problems. However, Mike principally takes aim at the marketing of “medicine companies,” whom he believes encourage this destructive behavior and attitude.
In the hook of “Sea Legs,” El evokes a nautical setting to symbolize the blurred line between good and evil in our society; he focuses on how this ambiguity poses a challenge to mental stability. The instrumental here is top-notch, beginning with washes of slippery synth, reverberating bass, and finger snaps before bursting into another snare-heavy trap beat.
Killer Mike has the distinction of delivering Run the Jewel’s hardest-hitting verse on “Job Well Done.” The production sonically and structurally retreads ground already covered by El, but Mike’s ferocious bars combined with the contrastingly mellow chorus from “Until the Ribbon Breaks” makes the track a standout. Still, the beat on the following song, “No Come Down,” is a bit more impressive given its prominent bass, resonant cymbal hits, and noodling electric guitar.
Of the last three tracks, the most impressive is “Twin Hype Back.” The percussion here is bouncy and eccentric; El’s and Mike’s lyrics are crass, obsessed with sex and drugs, and Prince Paul (in character as Chest Rockwell) makes two hilarious appearances on the bridge and outro. The closer, “A Christmas Fucking Miracle,” features two retrospective and introspective verses from El and Mike. The latter’s use of dental images in the first few bars of his verse make for the “lyrical” highlight of Run the Jewels: “The beat breaks and your teeth break/Keep your canines embedded in my knuckles as a keepsake/It would seem your veneers are just mere souvenirs falling out your mouth and on to the landscape.”
Run the Jewels meets even the most unreasonably high expectations of fans and critics. El-P and Mike have turned out one of the most passionately rapped and impeccably produced hip hop albums in recent memory. These two legends of the underground are angelic devils.