You’ve stared incredulously at your Twitter timeline and mumbled, bemused: “How are Killer Mike and El-P the most over-exposed rappers in 2014?” It defies reason, to be sure.
I won’t bore you with the details. If you’re listening to Run The Jewels, you are one of two people. The first is the one who knows how wearied these guys should be: You saw the Def Jux train take off, then crash quietly into the MP3 era. You know every word to “The Whole World”, but you understand how Monster became PL3DGE. The other person came later: You have never heard Funcrusher Plus; you could have the whole world, but are satisfied with the boulevard. That’s fine. There are enough 6,500-word profiles and gleeful festival recaps to go around. You can catch up.
But beyond their complicated relationships with the record industry, Michael and Jaime have their backs against familiar walls. Each is on the cusp of 40; Killer Mike will not test well with the fashion-forward crowd; El-P is, well, a curmudgeonly white guy from Brooklyn. Their rise to the top wasn’t a plot hatched in focus groups and boardrooms. Much has been made of Run The Jewels 2 as the first physical release on the newly Nas-affiliated Mass Appeal Records; really, the label was just catching on while they have a chance. This is a heist, through and through.
So why is the second installment so jarring? The last twenty-nine months have been a minor reign of terror for the duo: 2012 saw the twin solos R.A.P. Music and Cancer 4 Cure, released one week apart, and last year belonged to the self-titled debut from the duo. RTJ1 was a barn-burning half-hour, tapping into El-P’s post-I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead second wind and doubling down on the Killer Mike-Ice Cube comparisons. “DDFH” and “Sea Legs” have the guys moving like the Gestapo and toying with black magic. It was fun, it was loose, it was vicious. So why weren’t we ready?
Twenty years from now, we’re going to take our buddies’ kids to record stores (or whatever the Jaden Smith administration builds in their place), smirk, and point them to the one with the red cover. Run The Jewels 2 is somehow bigger, tighter, meaner, more soul-crushing. You sit in your room, bathed in red light from the web page, enter your email, then hit play. You expect to be knocked in the temple. But “Jeopardy” eludes you; ready as you might be, it still feels like the album starts in medias res. Because it does.
When you’re 13, rap is a sport, maybe your favorite. The smoke, the mirrors, the pyrotechnics are what matters. Master P is your favorite basketball player. Every record is a competition for the craziest boasts, the most outlandish claims, the hardest punchlines. You want a song like “Blockbuster Night, Part 1”: “I’ma rat-tat-tat ‘em for a livin’/I deal in dirty work, do the deed, and then dash, ditch ‘em.” The next track, “Close Your Eyes (And Count To Fuck)”, or “All Due Respect”, or any four-bar passage across RTJ2’s thirty-eight minutes can sate that same thirst. But that’s only part of it.
When you’re 16, rap is reportage. Master P doesn’t matter. Hip-hop is a voice for the marginalized. Protest music. “Crown” will be your go-to, all pain, shame, and unplanned pregnancies. Now comes the reverence for history; Run The Jewels 2 sports a song that features an essential, forward-as-fuck Gansgsta Boo verse on a song that presupposes the listener knows who Akinyele is. Bold. This is where the Amerikkka’s Most Wanted/Death Certificate comparisons come in and become full-fledged; this LP will never be fully divorced from Killer Mike’s unchained CNN appearance. And that’s fine.
Finally, when you’re 19, you grasp hip-hop as a formal exercise. Briefly, Master P is your favorite rapper. This doesn’t mean the same thing it did six years ago, when multi-syllable rhymes blew you away and similes were the height of the medium. Rap as an aesthetic experience starts to click. “Lie, Cheat, Steal” is engrossing. It’s a weird, anachronistic rabbit hole, gold chains tangled up with the USB cords. “Smoke the loosie drift/Hold it like a crucifix.”
That Run The Jewels 2 covers all these bases is, perplexingly, a good thing. Nearly every record that checks this many boxes does so half-heartedly; Mike and Jaime transcend because the boxes are afterthoughts. Never mind the press campaign, the timeline overload, the of-the-moment fever pitch. RTJ2 is not a treatise for its era or its genre or its creators. Maybe it isn’t a footnote. Maybe the last fifteen-plus years were one long preamble. “Did you know the white dude in Run The Jewels had a record label? Yeah, Aesop Rock was on it. Wild, right?” You will be beat over the head this week, this month, this year-end-list season with attempts to put this project in historical context. Stop that. Wake the fuck up. This is about right now.