Rap fans are so damn demanding. I always knew this, but it really struck me a few weeks ago while I was crashing on the couch of my neighbor, this white dude with dreads from Canada who owns a cat named Hendrix. The neighbor, a metal head, and I were discussing our respective musical tastes, and I asked him what metal fans complain about when listening to their music.
“Mainly, we complain if it’s not ‘metal’ enough,” he said. “So bands go out of their way to ‘out-metal’ each other. They have to play more aggressively, sing about more dragons, shit like that.”
That’s right. Metal bands sing about fucking dragons while rap fans while listen to struggle bars about molly over the annual Beat of the Year.
“Why, what do rap fans hate about rap?” he asked.
“Shit, how much time do you have?” I replied. “Albums with 25 songs, trends and slang terms being beaten to death, basic beats, uncreative lyrics, not to mention their social media habits…”
“That’s a lot to hate,” he observed.
“Yeah, but when rappers do the opposite of those, it’s a thing of beauty.”
I didn’t give much thought to our conversation until the Great Rapocalypse of Summer 2013. While going through all of the releases, I noted that each album had at least one instance where they employed my aforementioned complaints, except one: Run the Jewels.
It should come as no surprise that Killer Mike and El-P made the most consistent, and flat-out best, album of the summer, and possibly of the year so far. Cancer 4 Cure and R.A.P. Music were two of 2012’s best, showcasing the artists’ natural chemistry that made you mad they hadn’t connected before then.
Considering their past subject matter, you’d think they’d spend the album as two knowing prophets, fighting the tyrannical, overreaching government and corrupt legal system, moving through the underground and rallying the resistance. A whole project like that sounds awesome, but Run the Jewels is not that project. Killer Mike and El-P packed twice your daily recommended intake of chain snatching, shot licking, and ass kicking into a 30-minute beatdown that caused me to mail them my high school class ring and fugazi No Limit chain I bought from the swap meet in junior high.
The duo have a Black Hippy-like love of competition between each other, with the two trying to one-up each other on how abstractly they can describe raising hell. Killer Mike’s booming, authoritative voice makes every word feel like a punch as he mixes alliterative flurries with clever references (most notably, he cracks wise about one of the saltiest scenes in urban movie history: Snoop Dogg kicking over JoJo’s pillow fort in Baby Boy). His bully persona makes his comedic moments even more enjoyable, as on “Get It” we get to imagine this big dude doing the Trinidad James “Woo!” and then the George Jefferson walk while holding a gat.
He seems to relish the freedom that a free, independent release like Run the Jewels gives him, and he uses it to fire some shots at fellow Great Rap Summer of 2013 participants Jay-Z and Kanye on “Sea Legs”, calling them “parrots” and “liars.” Harsh words, but Killer Mike has a reputation for speaking harsh truths. Usually, shots like these seem like sour grapes from a less-accomplished artist, or just Game doing his annual “Please notice me, Jay-Z!” campaign. But Killer Mike might be the most talented rapper to essentially say “Fuck Jay-Z” since Nas, and he’s certainly making better music than Hova at the moment. He’s embracing the villain role on Run the Jewels and he sums it up thusly on “Job Well Done” – “I take being left off your ‘fuck list’ personal.”
El-P might have Killer Mike beat when it comes to oddball rhymes on Run the Jewels, despite Killer Mike blowing away a poodle on the title track. “I fuck in my church shoes” comes to mind, in addition to rhymes about dolphin rape and Yetis. But he’s (thankfully) not Bizarre-from-D12 weird. El Producto is from Brooklyn, the land of talking greasy – “Not too tall, dark, and handsome, man/But I talk dark for the ransoms, man.” He’s just as comfortable as Killer Mike about smacking haters silly, and his beats create the dark environment that allows them to slide back into the shadows after pulling off an armed robbery. The production is more R.A.P. Music than Cancer 4 Cure, but still retains El-P’s beloved synths and guitars, because a soul sample has never inspired me to get gully on anybody, with the exception of Cam’ron’s “Down and Out”.
Run the Jewels is boldly in your face, presented by two thinking-man’s goons who take more pleasure in describing how they terrorize the marks than the spoils they reap. What’s most refreshing about their macho posturing is that it never devolves into misogyny or homophobia. Admittedly, I don’t really care when I hear those elements anyway because I don’t look to rap music for family values and I’m too busy doing the real Harlem Shake to care. But El-P and Killer Mike show that you can absolutely make high-grade bully rap without slandering women and the gay community. It’s the most accessible of their previous works, all without a club-centric song featuring Drake, which, rest assured, would have led to a rash of “purist” suicides (remember Lil’ Wayne on Little Brother’s Getback?). The only restraint they showed was limiting Run the Jewels to 10 songs, a savvy move to leave us wanting more, and letting the quality of the music create its own hype for the rumored sequel. Run the Jewels, so far, runs 2013.