This is the Killer Mike (a.k.a. Michael Render) and El-P (a.k.a. Jaime Meline) show. El-P’s verses and beats don’t “breathe;” they don’t have “soul;” they don’t “groove;” shit, they aren’t even properly suited under the umbrella of “hip-hop.” Killer Mike’s verses aren’t porous; they aren’t abstruse; they most certainly are not amenable; shit, they’re so didactic and polemical that they hardly exist under the umbrella of “art.” There’s a warmth and humanity implied in each of these distinctions — some of which are softened by their collaboration — that doesn’t exist in El-P and Killer Mike’s recently demarcated, consolidated, and cloistered universe of Run the Jewels.
This is holding your breath for three-minute intervals. This is selling your soul because you can’t afford to show your anima. This is running at full tilt in a neighborhood where slowing to a walk means yielding your gains. This is locking to the grid to avoid what lurks in the alleyways. This is becoming a robot, not because it seems aesthetically chic, but because flesh is too diaphanous to survive the jagged edges of a hard life. This is high-tense anxiety and all the felt extremes that come along with it: “sanity on the fringe of distorted” (It’s a high-wire “Christmas Fucking Miracle”).
This is “Us Against the World” boast rap where the personal gives way to their unorthodox partnership. This is two hard-as-fuck MCs with distinctive styles compromising in order to coalesce under the banner of a single statement and a single modus operandi — and I cannot for the life of me find a negative concession on either of their parts. This is Killer Mike (mostly) keeping his politics in his pocket and El-P (almost) keeping his tense tirades within the confines of intelligibility for the sake of the greater message: “We’re overly fucking awesome” (“Get It”?). This is two polarized rappers parring each other’s forté: this is Mike truly living up to his purported “AK word flow” in the presence of El’s legendary mile-a-minute; this is Jamie putting the “El” back in “elegant” and “elephantine” in the presence of the “black elephant” himself.
This is developing a discographical mythology that has been mostly absent in hip-hop for some time. This is story music; the story just happens to be “in progress” and bigger than each individual track or each individual MC: intertextual reference to 2012’s pair of stellar albums provide the ellipsis that connect Run The Jewels to Cancer 4 Cure and R.A.P. Music as a unified statement. This is Mike and El partaking in a true conversation — the lyrical overlap and communication between them on each track is second to none — about “drones over Brooklyn” (“D[o] D[ope] F[uck] H[ope]”) and “big beasts,” coming to the realization that floating so high up may be safe and comfortable, but it’s way more fucking fun to tread the landscape (and, of course, “Run the Jewels”) amid the wolves and lambs.
This is an unfettered, deservedly ecstatic victory lap that’s riddled with in-jokes; it’s “a tongue kiss on your hot pocket” (“Twin Hype[’s] Back,” “bad boy,” and it won’t cost you a cent); it’s a “secret handshake” that just so happens to last for 33 engrossing minutes. This is the balance between hilarious and hysteria, between the right side of the Rapture and the wrong side of town where crippled and dark, saw-toothed synth tones walk side-by-side with trunk-rattling 808s. This is the side of town where guests only exist to prove how superfluous their presence is (sorry, Big Boi), where any contemporary influences are so thoroughly integrated in their sonic universe that it becomes impossible to prove that they exist at all (Footwork? Drill? Trap? Screw? …Maybe?).
This is El-P and Killer Mike yelling in unison: “We designed our own game, and we’re the undisputed fuckin’ champions of it.” Remain clement and cursory on the sidelines and, peripherally, the game might not seem that impressive; but get on board and you’ll realize that Run the Jewels’ fundamental proclamation is in each rapper’s final statement: El-P: “Them and the lost minds thinking they’re smarter than us/ Don’t understand love’s importance/ And we can weaponize that, bring ‘em back to the truth/ […] Killer Mike: “Real rap, my last line’s so true/ […] We do it for you.” And we are forever in your debt for it.