Nearly two decades after rocking the underground realm with Funcrusher Plus, El-P has cut down on his dense cultural references and mile-a-minute musical approach to make way for accessibility. This gave Killer Mike enough room to slip in and form the much lauded bad-guy duo Run The Jewels. Instead of hustling to catch up to El-P’s sonic debris, Mike’s booming voice positions itself in the center of the maelstrom. His aggressive assonance (especially in standout cuts like “Blockbuster Night, Part 1”) is an instrument in itself—a percussive one.
And Run The Jewels 2 is concussive. The sequel takes the simplistic thrills of the debut and expands the duo’s natural chemistry. With Killer Mike grounded at the album’s emotional core, El-P is free to indulge in his intrepid production tendencies. The first half comes stocked with bass-heavy, high-tempo sonic backdrops as restless as its creators—specifically “Oh My Darling Don’t Cry” and “Jeopardy.” On the second half, El-P impresses with the heart-palpitation-inducing, Travis Barker-assisted “All Due Respect,” a high-tension number that gives way to bacchanal on the hook. The slimy creep of “Love Again (Akinyele Back)” right after just spoils the listener.
Again, shit-talking is the new gift of gab here, from Killer Mike’s over-the-top threats (“Top of the morning, my fist to your face is fucking Folgers” on “Blockbuster Night”) to El-P’s snide stabs to the ego (“I’m a thrill killer, I will test you / Just like daddy fuckin’ left you” on “All Due Respect”). But isn’t braggadocio the easy route with what’s been a middling year in music, and with failures like Michael Brown’s death and the NFL’s domestic violence issues still fresh on people’s minds? Not so. Let’s take a step back from El-P’s futuristics. Hip-hop praises competitiveness; this culture rose out of social decay, when drugs, poverty, and the overtone of death were epidemic. With those three things and more threatening to suffocate, hip-hop was a means to breathe and defy the limiters it was cursed with. Run The Jewels’ brand of chest bumping isn’t vapid; it’s a form of subsistence. “Lie, Cheat, Steal” forms the crux of this argument. In the thematic centerpiece, Killer Mike’s breathless run through another Donald Sterling evisceration to conspiracy speculation is done at a pace that hits close to a very instinctual level of survival.
Run The Jewels 2 is still aware reality can’t be rapped away. On “Crown,” Killer Mike gives an emotional account of selling drugs to a pregnant woman before El-P ponders the catharsis of gun violence. Killer Mike also delivers a hyper-detailed visual of a run-in with the police that involves a gun being shoved in his spouse’s face. Whether causing trauma or using hip-hop as blues, Run The Jewels 2 is aware that society may be teetering at the edge of its sagacious period. If “murder, mayhem, melodic music” isn’t the only answer, the duo’s latest triumph is too endlessly playable to seek alternatives.