‘Run the Jewels’ is What a Great Rap Duo Record Sounds Like

Run the Jewels

Run the Jewels, the collaborative effort between Killer Mike and El-P, is an excellent album that nods to the abrasive bombast of Rick Rubin-era Def Jam production and the lyrical bop and bounce of late-’90s southern rap. It’s been characterized as a hard-hitting buddy cop album, like 48 Hours meets Quentin Tarantino, but more importantly, they’ve  made an album that serves as a reminder of the magnificent power of a true rap duo. Despite today’s trend towards packing albums with infinite guest features and outside producers, the best rap albums often have very few people involved in them. Run the Jewels slams home the point.

Following Run the Jewels‘ genesis through EL-P and Killer Mike’s Twitter accounts was like witnessing a couple of friends trade banter as much as make music and the recording sessions seemed to involve actual collaboration and a sharing of ideas. There’s also the chance that at one point they holed themselves up in a log cabin somewhere and succumbed to some sort of woodsy delicacies. The bond comes through in the music; EL-P has tweeted “getting to rap and work with Mike is the most fun I’ve had making records period.” Beyond Big Boi providing the album’s sole guest rap on “Banana Clipper” and Little Shalimar snagging a few co-producer credits, EL-P and Killer Mike rightly hoard the rest of the recording duties. It’s a savvy decision that has them egging each other on as they pare hip-hop down to two of its raw elements and allow them to collide. They take turns trying to out macho-rhyme each other in increasingly bravado ways as if a couple of maniacal renegades running rampant around a video game. At one point a harmless poodle becomes a casualty of Mike’s enthusiasm. Elsewhere, EL-P coins some sort of wildin’ rap nerd fantasy when he promises, “I’ll bend you over on the roof while whistling Audio Two.” To this, they often provide ad libs and yelps of support for each other’s raps.

It’s this closeness between Run the Jewels‘ two conspirators that makes the album a success — and it’s something some of the year’s most disappointing projects could learn from. French Montana might be working with a rap lexicon of approximately three words, but he can stumble into a decent hit when in tandem with Harry Fraud, as they did for his signature tune “Shot Caller.” But his Excuse My French album ditched Fraud for more fashionable credits — a move which saw it slated. This is a common trend: An upcoming rapper makes a reputation based around a distinctive sound and image and then as soon as the money comes calling, they feel the need to pack projects with perceived bigger name producers and guest vocals from whatever rapper happens to have lucked into a hit at that moment. I interviewed a Producer To Remain Nameless the other week and he admitted that a lot of times he has no idea where his beats are going to end up. It’s music as a trade — a beat for a verse for a future project — rather than music made for the kicks of the artistic process. But listening to Run the Jewels you can envision EL-P and Killer Mike talking about their verses, or what a song really needs, or even scrapping concepts and starting over. There’s a oneness to the music the two of them have created.

Maybe this is all an age thing. EL-P and Killer Mike are not of the current generation of rappers. Taking a guess at the albums that inspired them to make their own rap music, I’d hanker they came from an era where classic rap albums were mandated to have one producer in the seat: Marley Marl overseeing the Juice Crew’s reign, Dr. Dre masterminding N.W.A‘s assault on the world, and as noted above, Rick Rubin’s work during Def Jam’s anti-establishment era. Honed down, there are the great rap duos who kept the creative process a close-knit one: Guru and Premier, Pete and C.L., Erick and Parish, Eric and Rakim, Havoc and Prodigy, Bun B and Pimp C, Andre and Big Boi. Run the Jewels is cut from this lineage. On “Get It,” Killer Mike claims, “I’m stuck in a time capsule when rap was actually factual.” You can argue the validity of the sentiment another time — Big Bank Hank appropriating Grandmaster Caz’s lyrics put a dent in hip-hop’s claims for authenticity back in ’79 — but there’s a kernel of truth there: In another era albums were exclusive and largely in-house affairs. It’s a formula that produced cohesive albums. Let’s hope Run the Jewels kick-starts that way of thinking again.

Run the Jewels is out now on Fools Gold. You can download it for free here

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