The change isn’t so much in the air as all over the album. With the release of ‘Run The Jewels 2’ (review), rapper and producer pair Killer Mike and El-P have progressed their already celebrated joint venture, birthed with an eponymous debut LP of 2013, to head-rush new heights.
The collaboration of an Atlanta MC, with Southern swagger in his step and a belly full of political ire, and a New York producer and rhymer, his own surgically sharp lyrics complemented by electrified beats, isn’t something that immediately computes on paper. But these two have more than exceeded any original expectations for their united explorations beyond hip-hop conventions. Indeed, despite modest initial intentions, their group dynamic has become a bigger deal than any previous solo excursions.
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‘Oh My Darling (Don’t Cry)’, from ‘Run The Jewels 2’
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“Run The Jewels started because I wanted to do an EP,” El-P recalls. “I had a bunch of music I was already working on. I told Mike about it, and he wanted to jump on it. I said cool, and that led to this - to us working together in the studio - and from there it just blossomed.”
The pair had already worked together ahead of those first RTJ sessions: El-P produced Killer Mike’s exhilarating solo album of 2012, ‘R.A.P. Music’. At the time the partnership raised a few eyebrows, so when it was announced that they were to embark on a fully co-operative project, jaws were ready to park themselves on the floor. And, sure enough, the debut (eponymous) Run The Jewels album planted its share of dentures in the dirt. For El-P, he knew straight away that they’d made something special.
“When we finished the record, we looked at each other, and we were both thinking that we’d gone and hit this one out the park. But we didn’t know [what’d come next]. It all snowballed.”
Today, El-P – real name Jaime Meline – looks back on that debut set as “brash and fun”, and “more a collection of songs” than an album ‘proper’. Having manned the desk on several albums past, not just those bearing his own name on their sleeves (three solo sets to date), he knows what is and what isn’t an album ‘proper’. And ‘Run The Jewels 2’ most certainly is.
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I’ve been pulled over by cops with my family in the car. I know what it feels like to be sat there thinking, ‘If I do something stupid, I could be killed…’
(l-r: El-P, Killer Mike)
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“‘Run The Jewels’ was something of a vacation from the intensity of our solo work. But when we decided to move it forward, we needed to make it creatively fulfilling for both of us. It has to have our hearts and souls in it. We still want to be fun and brash, but we needed to walk away from this one knowing that Jaime Meline and Michael Render were really present on it.”
Michael Render being, obviously enough, Killer Mike – a broad-smiling, stage-owning MC with a solo career six albums deep and enough emotion in his rapid-patter wordplay to fill a Ryman’s worth of personal journals. What he feels inside he reveals in his lyrics, never a man to hold back when it comes to addressing what he feels are distinct ills affecting society as we live it.
Mike’s a prominent campaigner for the legalisation of marijuana, and that’s a side of his personality that comes through on record in rather more abstract ways than other rappers might manage. ‘Early’, for instance, documents a stop-and-search incident where the guy who just wants to “smoke and chill” has to hold his tongue in the presence of the law to avoid being “dragged away in front of his beautiful son”. But then shit gets really bad: the mother of the scene has her face pressed against the tarmac, and our man’s “life changed with that sound”.
“Yeah, I’ve been pulled over by cops with my family in the car,” Mike reveals. “I know what it feels like to be sat there thinking, ‘If I do something stupid, I could be killed, so I’d better do stuff right, and not talk back and get out of line.’ On ‘Early’ I wanted to narrate that people are used to a man dying – but that needs questioning, and I highlighted that the mother dies to do that.”
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‘Blockbuster Night Part 1’, from ‘Run The Jewels 2’
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“We have this ungodly drug war,” he continues, “where society and government beat you into the f*cking ground with jobs and taxes and bullshit, and you’re not allowed to medicate beyond going to a doctor and them giving you some shit that might kill you. I wanted to highlight that the real victims of the drug war are just guys working with a dime in their pocket, responsible dads. The victims are women and wives, left without husbands or sons. Or they’re killed. In Atlanta, police killed a 92-year-old grandmother. I find the drug war despicable.”
On their recent tour of the United States, for which they rode around in a massive, ‘RTJ2’-branded bus, the two and their crew found themselves an easy spot for patrolling policemen with a suspicion of illegal substances ready to be seized.
“The livery seemed a really amazing idea until it dawned on us that we’d made ourselves one of the larger moving targets for police around America,” says El-P, before confirming: “The cops straight up came into the bus, searched it, found weed and arrested someone.”
‘Early’ is just one standout on an album brimming with them. Closer ‘Angel Duster’ showcases a slightly softer side to the Run The Jewels sound, albeit with its reserved production serving as support for some spectacularly barbed lyrics from El-P and Killer Mike. “I don’t give a f*ck about power / I’ll pluck the eye out of a pyramid,” says the former before Mike sticks the knife in: “Our pope is a fraud, a church is a lie / A queen is the same damn thing, you should pray to your fake god that she die.” Punches, not one pulled. The track’s special to El-P for a reason that can’t be drawn from the lyrics, though.
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We really put ourselves through the flames to make sure this was a step forward for us. There’s something special happening here that we could never have predicted…
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“That song allowed me to get one of the final performances from my friend, ‘Ikey’ Owens,” he says, referring to the late keyboard player who died in October 2014, best known for his work with The Mars Volta. “[His contribution is] pretty much the last thing you hear on the record. He passed away before he got to hear his song. So it’s super special to me.”
Elsewhere, ‘Run The Jewels 2’ welcomes the likes of blink-182’s Travis Barker, Rage Against The Machine frontman Zack De La Rocha and Memphis rapper Gangsta Boo into the fold, but at no point is this one of those incoherent, features-heavy rap records so prevalent in the mainstream. It’s the most definitive statement that these artists could hope to make as Run The Jewels.
“There’s a palpable difference between the two records,” says El-P. “We knew the potential, and we knew the second album goes one of two ways: either the magic has gone, or now you create something that takes things to the next level. We really put ourselves through the flames to make sure this was a step forward for us. And I feel like we’ve done a good job of pulling that off.”
Calling ‘Run The Jewels 2’ a “good job” is practically modesty defined, but the new opportunities presented to these relative veterans of their music, of their culture, are not to be taken for granted. “There’s something special happening here that we could never have predicted,” says El-P. And as for what’s next: best fold away any on-paper forecasts right now.
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Run The Jewels online. ‘Run The Jewels 2’ is out now. See the pair live in the UK as follows:
7th – Forum, London
28th-30th – Reading and Leeds Festivals