If you want to know what Run the Jewels has above other hip-hop duos, watch the interview they did for Pitchfork’s “Over/Under” series. After being asked whether Hulk Hogan was overrated or underrated, rapper Killer Mike paused for a second, thought about it, and replied, calmly, “Fuck Hulk Hogan.” He then proceeded to deliver a minute-long diatribe, tearing Hogan apart, while rapper and producer El-P interjected, over and over again, “Hogan! Hogan! We’re coming for you, Hogan!” The two chuckled and moved on to the next question.
Run the Jewels is a project built on three things: idiocy, aggression, and friendship. Their first, self-titled LP is one of my favorites of last year. While these two artists are known for socially-conscious, politically charged, raw hip-hop (Killer Mike’s “Reagan” and El-P’s “Drones Over BKLYN” are masterpieces in their own right), their first fully collaborative album had one goal: to figure out how many ways one could creatively threaten a person. The result was a scorched-earth dance party, two guys flipping over all of the furniture in your house, stealing your pets, dancing on your windpipe, and high-fiving each other about it later because what are you going to do about it?
The first LP was probably more of a breakthrough than either artist had previously in their careers, not because it was better than their previous work, but because it is an unbelievably engaging and entertaining listen. The camaraderie between the two wasn’t obscured but was in fact amplified by the violence of the record. So, here we are, a year, later, with Run the Jewels 2.
Run The Jewels 2 begins the only way it can, with Killer Mike’s thick, deep voice shouting something brutal and unintelligible, before declaring a chest-thumping, “Let’s GO, El-P!! HUH?” that gives way to the opening track, “Jeopardy.” The beat is right in El-P’s wheelhouse, low, fuzzed out bass, cheap, heavy drums, with the addition of a violin and a trombone solo. It’s a great beat that gets better after multiple listens, and El-P delivers one hell of a final line with, “Run the Jewels is the answer/the question is ‘WHAT’S POPPIN.’” But despite everything, it feels somewhat muted. “Jeopardy” is made of elements that are very similar to those in the first track of their last LP, “Run the Jewels,” but it lacks that song’s searing intensity. Chalk it up to diminishing returns, perhaps; it’s good, but it’s just not quite as good as it was.
The same can be said for most of the first half of Run the Jewels 2. Tracks like “Oh Darling Don’t Cry” and “All My Life” feel like they’re re-working two songs from the previous LP, “Banana Clipper” and “Sea Legs.” They’re effective and fun to listen to but they don’t pack the same punch as the tracks they resemble. In transposing beats that he has made before, El-P loses a little bit in translation, and the verses don’t have the same fire as they did a year prior.
However, the two pre-release singles from the first half, “Blockbuster Night Part 1” and “Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck),” fare better. They both have a playful buoyancy matched with stark, soldier-like aggression. “Close Your Eyes” in particular benefits from the appearance of Rage Against the Machine vocalist Zach de la Rocha, who hasn’t sounded this alive all year. Even these early standouts, however, don’t bring anything new to what Run the Jewels has already done.
It is in the second half, when the duo experiments and gets to play around, where Run the Jewels 2 shines. The pulsating, hypnotic arpeggios and metallic drums of “Lie Cheat, Steal,” the hook on “Early” that feels like a great remix of a Radiohead song, the genuinely surprising appearance of drummer and middle-school hero Travis Barker on “All Due Respect,” and the glitchy MIDI organ on “Crown” all bring something new to the Run the Jewels aesthetic. These songs feature dynamic, interesting, new production, something missing from the first half of the album. When he’s on, El-P is the best producer in the game.
But El-P isn’t always on. Production on the album varies wildly from stale to stunning. The verses, however, are consistently excellent. These two MCs have distinctive styles that play off of each other excellently. El-P is slick, sly, and savage, with words tumbling over each other in his thick, Brooklyn accent. He remains one of the country’s strangest and most skilled nihilists, selling lines like, “It’s all a joke between mom contractions and coffin fittings/ So we disappear in the smoke like we’re fuckin’ magicians.” But the star is Killer Mike, and his smooth, heavy voice throws volleys of words at the audience the way Zeus throws lightning bolts.
With Run the Jewels 2, Killer Mike and El-P continue to set the world on fire with smiles on their faces. And while it’s less graceful than it was last the time out, who are you to stop them?