Since 2002, Jaime Meline (best known by his rapper moniker El-P) has unknowingly become one of the most important rap artists of this generation. In an era where sensationalism and lavishness has conquered the hip-hop scene, El-P has locked himself away in his laboratory, all while creating memorable and poetic lyrical escapades that no one has come close to matching. Well…except Michael Render (best known as Killer Mike). Killer Mike has guest rapped on tracks by Jay-Z, OutKast and T.I., but once he started making solo albums, you could see that he didn’t really fit in with many of the artists he collaborated with. Much like El-P, Killer Mike is an intellectual rapper, one disguised behind a very approachable rapping style. When these two geniuses united on Killer Mike’s 2012 solo record, R.A.P. Music (with El-P running production), it was clear that these guys had unquestionable musical chemistry. R.A.P. Music became one of the best received albums of 2012 and anticipation for whatever they were cooking up next was reaching a crazy high. R.A.P. Music let Killer Mike’s intense rap delivery shine, with El-P’s production injecting subtle and textured concentration to the already sturdy tracks. With the duo’s official collaboration album Run the Jewels, El-P and Killer Mike let both of their established essences go crazy.
Meline’s fascination with post-apocalyptic sci-fi is what made his previous two solo albums so potent. From the frightening visions demonstrated in “Habeas Corpses (Draconian Love)” from I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead to the paranoia-infused rhymes of “True Story” from Cancer 4 Cure, it’s clear that the Philip K. Dick fan is making something far beyond the typical rhyming mindset. The steady beats don’t clash with El-P’s signature spacey production, like the haunting piano line in “DDFH” or the otherworldly distorted synth on the opening to “Get It.” The bizarre sampling and subtle uses of melody throughout the tracks signifies a yearning to experiment. That’s always been Meline’s vibe and it’s tough to see a better example of it than here.
But El-P’s influence is only one side of the brain. Killer Mike is a monster of a rapper and the way he so forcefully delivers the already intricate rhymes on “36” Chain” alongside El-P’s spacey, but echoing production is something even unlike the already amazing R.A.P. Music. “Job Well Done” punches listeners in the face with a thunderous beat; Killer Mike raps in an unreal way, one of the strongest and most intense performances on the album, but also one with a relaxed finesse. Behind the surreal beats and rhythms, Render is a blunderbuss, a rapper who blows down the doors with his rhymes and pushes back anything that gets in his way.
But it’s when these two minds come together that it’s clear there’s something special going on with Run the Jewels. One of the signature tracks “Sea Legs” has a surprisingly catchy chorus, behind lyrics that echo El-P’s literary brilliance, all with Killer Mike on the frontlines, never stopping the onslaught. “Job Well Done” has a fantastic guest appearance by Until the Ribbon Breaks and an ethereal chorus that stands out on the album considerably. The other guest appearances from Prince Paul and OutKast’s Big Boi layer the already fantastic tracks even further, slamming a varied approach to the album and keeping the whole thing feeling fresh. Even during the points where the duo hearkens back to their past projects like in “No Come Down” (which would sound perfect on Cancer 4 Cure or R.A.P. Music), there’s no sense of fatigue. Every bit of energy any musician can direct toward an album is present on Run the Jewels, but even with that, it’s an organic, almost playful album. It shows not only how seriously the duo works with their craft, but also how effortlessly they can make something truly brilliant.
Run the Jewels isn’t as cosmic as Cancer 4 Cure, nor is it as thunderous as PL3DGE, but there’s a steady balance that both Meline and Render contribute to the album. Each artist does what they do best, all without compromising the other. It doesn’t even feel like a collaboration; it feels like a rap duo purely drenched in synergy. There are no seams, no holes in the patchwork. Run the Jewels is an effortless hit, one where two undeniably talented artists leave no stone un-turned in making the album stunningly different from the rest, but still enough at home to avoid alienating either of their groups of followers.
Don’t listen to Run the Jewels because of the collaborators’ past experiences. Don’t listen to it because of the unorthodox musical approaches. Hell, don’t listen to it because it’s free to download. Listen to Run the Jewels because it’s one of the best rap albums around right now.
Run the Jewels will appear at Pittsburgh’s Altar Bar on Saturday, July 13.