By Aidan Connelly
The most telling part about Killer Mike and El-P’s second record is how it starts—no music or build-up, cutting straight to the chase with Killer Mike yelling into a laptop microphone and sounding like he’s about to lift a car above his head. With Run the Jewels 2, the pair of rappers expand on the abrasive, adrenaline-to-the-vein music that made their first self-titled mixtape so compelling. The first time around, they made the promising sound out of two guys putting themselves back in the running. This time around, they’ve created an album that sounds like 45 minutes’ worth of a 100-meter dash. Like the title would suggest, Run the Jewels 2 is a refinement of the unrefined qualities of the duo’s first effort. There’s just as much braggadocio, but the message is more cohesive. El-P’s instrumentals bang just as hard but still feel like a sonic progression.
At its core, Run the Jewels 2 is an album about liberation—unleashing yourself from whatever’s holding you back, whether that be the government, police, competition, or your own past—as is the case on “Crown,” a highlight from the album’s second half. “God really exists I tell you like this/ It reside inside,” Mike proclaims. “And anybody tell you different, just selling you religion, tryin’ to keep your ass in line.”
For the most part, it’s the crooked men on top that inspire the songs on Run the Jewels 2. Cloaked government and corrupt law enforcement serve as gasoline to the album’s raging fire, with both making numerous appearances from track to track. It’s that particular bend of aggression that illustrates the chaos within RTJ2, and writes lines like: “It be feelin like the life that I’m livin a man I don’t control/ Every day I’m in a fight for my soul,” on “Early.”
But then there are moments where the duo take a turn to a more tongue-in-cheek brand of viciousness. See Example A in “Lie, Cheat, Steal,” where El-P warns us that he’ll “Tea-bag a piranha tank, heart barely beatin’/ A wild one who’ll swim like directly after he’s eaten.” If you aren’t paying attention, it’s lines like this one that might slip under the radar, passing as typical big-game talk.
Instrumentally, Run the Jewels 2 teeters between aggressive and brooding synth arrays. Spatters of the occasional distorted guitar or minute detail show up throughout each beat, like the Pac-Man death sound that makes an appearance when El-P warns that “It ain’t a game if the shit don’t pause”.
The main appeal of Run The Jewels 2 is how El-P and Killer Mike manage to pair ignorant hype-up songs next to socially charged and conscious ones. It’s a case of having your cake and eating it—capturing the fun of classically braggadocious gangster rap, while also tackling serious issues. And by placing the two together, they manage to make a project that feels honest and invigorated. I don’t know exactly what it means to run the jewels, but Killer Mike and El-P are certainly the kings of their own lane.