“Oh shit what the hell have we done?” El-P raps on the opening verse of Run the Jewels’ self-titled new LP, “It’s alive and it’s hungry as fuck”. For those who don’t know, Run the Jewels is the name of the collaboration between legendary Brooklyn MC/producer El-P and heavyweight Atlanta rapper Killer Mike, and this, their first album under that name, really is a monster.
Released for free via Fool’s Gold Records on Wednesday, Run the Jewels is part joyous studio mess-around, part experiment in pushing hip hop forward by bringing back what made it great in the first place: hard beats and hard rhymes. There isn’t a soul sample in sight here, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a line that doesn’t qualify as aggressive in some way. Whereas most rap albums these days are about basking in money and champagne in the VIP section of the club, RTJ is the guy from the ‘80s with the boombox and the 36” chain who’ll beat you up for looking at him the wrong way. El-P’s beats are Mantronix with a woozy space age twist and Mike’s rapping, still so distinctly southern, perfectly embodies the erudite aggression that most New York MCs seem to have pretty much left behind.
Despite this, there’s a definite sense of humour at work throughout the record. The pair each dropped albums last year – El-P’s Cancer 4 Cure and Mike’s R.A.P. Music – which were serious, brooding works: C4C was a darkly psychological sci-fi epic and R.A.P. (also produced by El) was as much about politics as it was ass-whooping. On Run the Jewels, it’s just the ass-whooping. This is fun music, a creative goldmine of black humour which keeps turning up gems. ‘Job Well Done’, probably the loudest and most gleeful cut on the album, is an endless slew of did-he-just-say-that lines: “Dolphins prone to rape’ll hear the tape and stop to think about it/ Monks won’t immolate themselves until the record hits the shelves.” Elsewhere, Killer Mike shoots a poodle during a robbery and legendary old school weirdo Prince Paul brings some questionable chat-up lines to the table. Run the Jewels may be dark and it may be violent, but for the most part it’s comic book (or, more suitably, graphic novel) violence that is always more inventive than nasty, even if it does sometimes disregard good taste.
Listening to Run the Jewels, you can’t help but be reminded of another collabo, albeit one from two years back: Kanye and Jay-Z’s Watch the Throne. As absurd as it might seem to compare the glittery, opulent work of two of hip hop’s flashiest celebrities with an indie release this brutal and defiant, there are striking similarities. Both are the joint creations of a rapper and a rapper/producer who’ve worked together in the past; both are full-length exercises in tag-team bravado; both were originally planned as EPs but then burst the seams when their creators realised how much fun they were having. Most saliently, though, both records have a command for a title, a stark imperative that evokes the sheer confidence of the artists. Jay and Ye demand that you watch the throne; El-P and Killer Mike demand that you run the jewels. And just as Jay-Z and Kanye’s order perfectly captures the mood of their album, one that gloats and exults in distancing itself from its listeners, Run the Jewels is the perfect name for a record that gets up close and personal, that grabs your attention and pummels your ears. In 2013, it’s the perfect antidote to a lazy rap mainstream which is lacking in creativity and, more importantly, a sense of humour.