Monday, December 2, 2013

album review: 'run the jewels' by run the jewels (RETRO REVIEW)

Okay, it's time for me to talk about a fundamental tenet of my reviewing philosophy: whenever I go into an album, I always try to discern the artist's intent, and review the album they built with that in mind. It's all a matter in how well they present and deliver that intention and message, and how they control their scope. And this can mean some acts will get good reviews from me despite the fact that they really aren't aiming to say anything all that transcendental. Thus if a boy band makes an album full of silly dance and love songs, that's the standard by how you should review them, and as much as you'd like to rage and complain that they aren't making grand, affirming, meaningful statements, they aren't trying to do that. For an example, compare the original review of Andrew W.K.'s I Get Wet by Pitchfork and then look at the re-review a decade later.

But at the same time, this sort of reviewing philosophy can get frustrating when approaching albums that attain some measure of critical acclaim about six months too late, which takes us directly to the self-titled debut album from hip-hop duo Run The Jewels. The duo is composed of two important names in hip-hop: Atlanta rapper Killer Mike and near-legendary Brooklyn rapper-producer El-P, the latter who has been a favourite producer of mine for quite some time. In 2012, they collaborated on a pretty damn solid album R.A.P. Music, with Killer Mike on vocals and El-P handling production, but this year, El-P decided to step up to the mic himself for their newest project: Run The Jewels. To be completely honest, I didn't cover this album until now because, hey, I can't cover every hip-hop album and mixtape that hits shelves, I'd be swamped (it's easily one of the most prolific genres and it's no surprise there are whole channels dedicated to just covering it). But given the critical attention and acclaim it received, I figured I needed to cover it some time - and unfortunately, it's taken almost half a year to get through my backlog to it. And believe me, considering how well this album was received, I was seriously pumped for something special from two heavyweights in their genre. Did I get that?

Well, in a way I did. Let's get this out of the way, Run The Jewels is unquestionably an extremely good album and one of the best hip-hop releases this year, and I'd be lying if I said I didn't like it a great deal. It's the kind of bombastic, high-energy, hyper-intense album that we don't see a lot of in hip-hop (particularly this year, where a bunch of artists decided that lifeless beats and no energy was the way to go in rap), and it's smart enough to know exactly what it is and how to achieve its goals. And yet, while I think it's exceedingly strong, I don't quite love it or find it nearly as enthralling as several definitely worse albums released this year - which is intriguing in its own way.

Let's start with instrumentation and production, which fuses dark and snarled beats with futuristic synths and heavy 808s into a cacophonous mix that still manages to sound quite coherent. If I'm going to use an adjective to describe this album, it would be dense, because the thick mixture of grimy, twisted beats and melodies is fused together into a complex and compelling mixture that still manages to keep the focus centered on the two rappers. At points, I'd argue the synth mix is a little too dense - perhaps fewer sound effects could have achieved the same results - but it never reaches the point of being actively grating or even over-produced. A slightly bigger problem is that I never found the hooks all that incredible  - sure, songs like 'Sea Legs' and 'Get It' and the title track had memorable hooks, but they were never the focus driving the momentum on the album, and it does show.

Granted, that's not exactly a bad thing, because the momentum is primarily driven by the hard and fast flows of El-P and Killer Mike, two rappers at the top of their game on this album. Killer Mike has always been a ferocious rapper with a lot of energy, but he modulates well and brings some compelling and complex wordplay to match El-P, who has a reputation for deeper rap more driven by symbolism and non sequiteurs, which he delivers quite well with punchlines and wordplay that you rarely see. And the interplay between these two rappers is easily one of the big highlights of the album, because they bounce off of each other incredibly well, with a lot of chemistry and confidence to work together. It's almost to the point where other artists feel a bit out-of-place on the album, and while Big Boi definitely justifies his presence with a great closing verse on 'Banana Clip', Prince Paul (with a nice humorous aside) and Until The Ribbon Breaks aren't quite as strong.

But really, the reason you came to this album are for the lyrics and punchlines, and here... well, it's damn near perfect. Killer Mike's more forceful delivery belies his more direct style of attack, while El-P goes for a subtler route that can often be just as cutting, if only through surprise and shockingly clever wordplay. And indeed, that's pretty much what this album is: two master wordsmiths going all out with bragging, insults, and subtle jibes - and not a lot beyond that. There are a few songs that venture slightly outside of the formula: 'No Come Down' opts to show how both rappers act when high (El-P only becoming a better wordsmith and Killer Mike hooking up with a girl), 'Sea Legs' asserts how they have remained stable and controlled against the tides of the industry, throwing in a Kanye and Jay Z diss for good measure, and 'A Christmas Fucking Miracle' is a more serious track speaking against the music industry, the government, and the other forces that would opt to coerce or subvert them. The latter two tracks really do a lot to add nuance and pathos to their message, with a lot of real emotion anchoring them and driving things forward, and they show that El-P and Killer Mike wanted to temper their brag raps with actual substance, they could (and they do) easily pull it off.

Because here's the thing: this album is essentially a load of hard-hitting brag raps and diss tracks that have just enough cohesion and serious effort to elevate them above a mixtape - and that's all it's trying to be, keeping a lighter, mischievous tone to not quite seem dark or imposing. They don't need to rely on sinister imagery or scare tactics when pure, unbridled wordplay will do the trick for them. However, combined with the extremely quick run time of the album, it can make Run The Jewels feel a bit lightweight or lacking in dramatic heft, as if they could have done something with a little more import and potency and chose to do this instead. But then again, when the wordplay is as good as it is (seriously, 'Get It' is jawdroppingly strong in that regard), and the more serious tracks are as strong as they are, I can't exactly argue that they executed their intent damn near perfectly. Within the scope they chose, Run The Jewels were able to accomplish exactly what they wanted - but at the same time, I'm left wishing that they had aimed a little higher for some more ambitious subject matter, as I'm certain they could have pulled it off.

So in the end, I really did like the self-titled debut from Run The Jewels, but I'm not sure it's the sort of album that will really stick with me for the long term. I'll admit, I'm a sucker for music with a heftier message than pure unbridled bravado, but I also won't deny that El-P and Killer Mike weren't really hunting to make something above and beyond that, at least on this record. And on that level, they knocked this album out of the park, so it unquestionably earns its 9/10. The production and instrumentation is damn near top of the line, and where it falters, the rapping picks up the slack. If you're a fan of hip-hop in any variety... well, hell, you've probably already picked up this album, but if you haven't, you definitely should get Run The Jewels. Hip-hop needs more guys like these, and if you're looking for rappers to raise the stakes, I couldn't think of a stronger act.

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