Wednesday, October 29, 2014

album review: 'run the jewels 2' by run the jewels

It's always a little unnerving going into album sequels - especially when those sequels aren't just to great albums, but records that I and many other critics would hold as some of the best of the year. And no, I'm not talking about Lil Wayne's Tha Carter V, which he unsurprisingly delayed, moving it to a week when it wasn't going up against the monolithic sales of Taylor Swift. I'm talking about an album from a duo that chose to leak the album for free, a rap duo whose unlikely pairing was greeted with apprehension last year and now has built to being one of the most heavily anticipated records of 2014.

Yep, I'm talking about Run The Jewels 2, the followup album to the self-titled first record from El-P and Killer Mike, the former an underground producer and rapper known for rhymes as layered and complex as his beats, the latter a member of Dungeon Family know for hard-hitting wordplay and a dominant presence behind the microphone. The pairing might have seemed odd in 2013, but when Run The Jewels dropped, the pairing made too much sense and ended up being my favourite hip-hop album of last year - and I wasn't the only one giving it that acclaim. 

And yet I have to admit, I was concerned about Run The Jewels 2. It was a follow-up to an incredible record full of fantastic wordplay, and it set the expectations dangerously high. And coupled with a list of guest stars that included Zack De La Rocha from Rage Against The Machine, Gangsta Boo of Three 6 Mafia, Diane Coffee known for working with Foxygen, and acclaimed drummer Travis Barker, this record looked like something special - but could it match its predecessor in terms of wordplay and production?

Well, much to my amazement, it could. And after plenty of repeated listens, I think I can say this: the second Run The Jewels album is a larger, heavier, darker, entirely more explosive animal than the first, effectively resolving the biggest issue I had with their debut into an even stronger, more thought-provoking album. Unquestionably one of the best hip-hop albums of the year, it shows the partnership working better than ever before on a record that is simultaneously more exaggerated, grotesque, and yet emotionally driven and insightful than the first Run The Jewels. And while it's not quite perfect, it reflects just how much potential really lurks behind El-P and Killer Mike's collaboration.

So let's get the obvious praise out of the way, and that's for our frontmen. One common criticism of the first Run The Jewels was that they were working to meet somewhere in the middle when it came to their unique styles: El-P's wordplay wasn't as blisteringly fast or obscure, Killer Mike didn't bring the same southern flavour or politically conscious angle. That's definitely not the case on Run The Jewels 2, where El-P unleashes his double-time flow and actually shows himself as a more emotive rapper than I would have ever expected, and Killer Mike ramps up his own intensity with more explosive power and willing to show vulnerability and more emotion than you'd ever expect. The duo already have a solid balance in terms of technical wordplay between Killer Mike's direct, immediately accessible punchlines and El-P's more sly attacks, and how they bounce off each other not only with fantastic interplay but by having their verses connect with each other in their final and beginning couplets, but with more of an emotional presence the lyrics hit significantly harder. It's the perfect balance between MCs that aren't afraid to be comically over-the-top and borderline disgusting with their imagery, and yet with the darker tone can support the subject matter that demands more thought. Hell, on one of my favourite tracks 'Blockbuster Night Part 1', Killer Mike juxtaposes calling rappers shit in the most juvenile of terms, and then in the next few lines compares himself to ancient Malian kings - the pairing of perfect historical references with filthy imagery drives that contrast home perfectly. 

And unlike their debut, nearly all of the guest stars are strikingly on point. Zack De La Rocha drops one of his most intricate verses in his career on 'Close Your Eyes (And Count To Fuck)', a track that goes straight for anti-authoritarian violence that you could consider over the top except for how very real they define the stakes. If we're looking for over-the-top comedy, Gangsta Boo's verse on 'Love Again (Akinyele Back)' more fits that mold, providing a perfect comic juxtaposition for male and female rapper sex jams that is wonderfully progressive and profane all across the board. Diane Coffee adds some subtle backing vocals and gorgeous piano to underscore the incredibly solid punchy groove of 'Crown', and Travis Barker's drums are perfectly fused into the beat of 'All Due Respect' for a ton of rattling, explosive presence. The one guest star who doesn't quite work for me is Boots, as I found his hook on 'Early' to feel a little inert, and his added vocal leads on 'All My Life' didn't really click with me. In fact, 'All My Life' is probably the weakest track on this album - a breath of fresh air from the first four bangers, but the wordplay is a little more lightweight.

This takes us to production, and El-P delivers some of his most layered and intricate beats to date, although some of the density of the first Run The Jewels record is expanded into thicker, heavier, bigger-feeling mixes that take his traditionally scratchy, explosive beats and gives them heavier melody lines to match. And there are so many points that just work incredibly well: the ominous low synth rumble of 'Jeopardy' that develops these crazed horn leads at the back half of the track, the eerie fluttering hoot balanced against the sharp claps and stuttering snares on 'Oh My Darling Don't Cry', the superb low riff and interweaving percussion of 'Blockbuster Night Part 1', the great swelling crescendo and rattling percussion punctuated by gunshots on 'Lie, Cheat, Steal', the cacophonous and textured percussion and raucous shouts that has a fantastic fist-pumping chorus on 'All Due Respect', the sleazy, languid guitar and horn leads on 'Love Again (Akinyele Back)' that has this crowd roar punctuating throughout the chorus. But the real triumph in production on this album is 'Crown' - it takes the fantastic depth and texture of the mix all across this album and punctuates it with a thunderstorm of drifting synths and guitar leads that transitions into a phenomenal melodic chorus with a great guitar line. If I were to take one issue with the instrumentation on this album, it'd come in some of the sampled vocal leads. Now there are points where it works obscenely well - 'Close Your Eyes (And Count To Fuck)' is balanced entirely on Zack De La Rocha's sampled voice and this great grimy gurgle at the bottom of the mix, but I didn't quite love the stuttered vocals on 'Oh My Darling Don't Cry' or the pitch-shifted chipmunk voiced hook on 'Lie, Cheat, Steal' - which is a damn shame, because I really loved the rest of that song!

And this takes us to what I really love about this record: lyrical content. Sure, the quotable lines go on for days and every critic has their favourites - for me, when you have rappers who can have dozens of multisyllabic rhymes like 'pugnaciously pacin', waitin' / I give a fuck if I'm late, tell Satan be patient', I'm gripped by all the wordplay. But my biggest issue with the Run The Jewels debut was a lack of real gripping content beyond sheer lyricism, and apparently someone listened, because this album gets political. Now I know some who'll immediately dismiss some of the political content because of the violent rhetoric that surrounds it, or the over-the-top presentation, but here the point: with extreme, unbelievable situations like what has happened with regards to specific race issues in the US, it's scary how well this darker tone fits. It's the same sort of atmosphere that worked with a lot of Eminem's social commentary - there's a bleak sense of humor to it all, but there's also real rage here that underscores the gross injustices and how normal some people seem to take it, rage directed at a broken system that has failed and will continue to fail. Take the racial profiling of the starkly emotive 'Early', which shows Killer Mike and his family being stopped unjustly by police even despite not having done anything wrong, and El-P blasting the system that will spy on all of its own citizens through cameras and yet won't do the same for its officers. Or the prison riot of 'Close Your Eyes (And Count To Fuck)', where Killer Mike calls upon feuding gangs to take their fights to the unjust police and let God judge the real innocents, if there are any. Or 'Lie Cheat Steal', where that nihilism drives both to question the system and the real instigators, the people who could make a near billionaire like Donald Sterling shake on national television. Or take the album closer 'Angel Duster', where religion, the other great institution both men condemn, is targeted for maintaining contradicting moral standards, archaic strictures, and a lack of focus on internal spirituality. But the album highlight - and one of the best songs of the year, period - is 'Crown'. Killer Mike's verse deals with his guilt for selling cocaine to a pregnant woman and how she manages to ease his heartache by taking responsibility, but El-P's verse is one of the most striking indictments of the dehumanization of soldiers and war I've seen all year, highlighting what happens when real feelings of guilt are buried in favour of a gun. If that's a crown, it's a crown of thorns. Coupled by the fact that both men ride the beat damn near perfectly, it is a moment that highlights the unstated theme of this album: responsibility. El-P and Killer Mike might play exaggerated figures, but they own it and infuse it with real humanity and thought. The institutions they attack have done everything they can to hide responsibility while imposing strictures on others they won't even follow - and when that snaps into focus, the rage on this album becomes righteous, even if the consequences behind it are often bleak indeed.

In other words, Run The Jewels 2 is goddamn incredible and one of the best albums of the year hands down. Every listen is giving me more to like, and while Sage Francis, Open Mike Eagle, and Freddie Gibbs are giving this record some stiff competition, it's definitely a contender for the best hip-hop record of this year. It's a strong 9/10 and an extremely high recommendation. Folks, if you're a fan of hard-hitting hip-hop music - or hell, music that has emotional charge and frightening relevance for today's world - you need to have heard Run The Jewels 2 yesterday. El-P and Killer Mike have proven they're a force to be reckoned with, and if we want to change anything, we need to give that force our support.

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