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On the Menacing and Meditative Brilliance of Run The Jewels

Run The Jewels, Getty Images

Killer Mike and El-P’s self-titled debut as Run The Jewels, as first blush, sounded like a re-up of the grittiest, toughest NYC rap records of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s blended with the sinister tag-team approach of Madvillain. This was intentional, of course, because the two chose the name Run The Jewels based on a line from LL Cool J’s ‘Cheesy Rat Blues’ off 1990’s ‘Mama Said Knock You Out.’

“Throw your hands in the air/ And wave ‘em like you just don’t care/ Keep ‘em there/ Run the jewels, run the jewels, run the jewels.”

While that reads as a clever nod to the past, and it is, it’s also an expertly used foreshadowing device. The concept of throwing your hands in the air like you just don’t care goes hand-in-hand with a live concert — it’s one of the most played-out rapper requests imagine aside from your standard call and response of “When I say [whatever], you say [whatever].”

And while you can most certainly throw your hands in the air during a Run The Jewels show, you probably won’t be doing just that. You’ll be shielding yourself from fellow concert-goers flinging themselves into one another like ragdolls as a celebration of El and Mike’s unmitigated intensity. Here are two guys who perform both solo and together, serving as their own opening acts in some kind of meta-ish performance suite. On paper it might read like a lot to digest, particularly because their sets come after two other opening acts. But there’s an unmistakable brilliance to the shape of their bill, and it becomes apparent once you’re immersed in their performance.

When I witnessed Run The Jewels’ concert on Friday, Aug. 9 at Cat’s Cradle in Carrboro, N.C., I was there both as a fan and as a reporter for the local alt-weekly, ‘Indy Week.’ It was my first actual gig with the paper and, I’ll be honest, I was gassed at the opportunity. So there I was, notepad in hand, standing in the crowd awaiting Kool A.D. to take the stage amid yawns. Anyone who’s been to at least a dozen shows is fully aware of the humidity-induced drowsiness that comes with being packed into an air conditioning-challenged venue. You can drink those yawns away, but my heartburn had other plans so I stuck with water.

Thankfully, the former Das Racist member was an absolutely delight, equal parts blunted goofball and rap showman. His perpetual cool was an alley oop to the one-two punch of Mike and El’s solo sets, which featured highlights from throughout their careers. Mike might have suffered from a sore throat and the sound might have been out of control for El, but that’s what we were there for: Eardrum-splitting rap madness from two of the genre’s finest. And when they hit the stage together? Forget about it.

Mike and El plowed through every cut off ‘Run The Jewels’ aside from the Prince Paul-featured ‘Twin Hype Back’ and we all exploded with the unfettering energy of the two MCs. It was like watching a master sushi chef filet a fish and julienne the necessary vegetables, if the roll was then dipped in LSD and topped with magic mushrooms. That might sound like stoner hyperbole, but it’s fitting. The two often indulged in hallucinogens during the recording process and Mike even outlines a shroom-induced affair with an exotic dancer on the track ‘No Come Down.’

Hearing this all in a live setting made it devastating clear that to fully experience ’Run The Jewels’ the album, you need to see Run The Jewels the concert. The 32-minute, 10-track record flies by as quickly as you’d imagine, blasting you with bass, synthesizers, and the brand of s–t-talking reserved for comedic roasts. When El ends his blustering ’36” Chain’ verse with “Riverdance cleats on your face for the finisher,” you immediately wince like you’re on the receiving end. And when Mike tramples a kid’s blanket fort on ’Banana Clipper,’ you’d be hard-pressed not to hold your stomach from laughter.

These outright malicious, villainous raps serve to fan the flames emanating from Run The Jewels and they’re likely to make for witty Twitter updates and Facebook comments. But it’s the sincerity of Mike and El’s passion for rap music as an entity that resonates and sticks to your ribs. Their love for the genre and culture at large becomes imminent as soon as they open their mouths or, in the case of El, lay a beat to tape.

Their passion is illuminated, however, during their live show. They high-five one another, watch each other flex their vocal cords like proud brothers, and appear truly humbled when the crowd is as enthusiastic about it all as they are. They are best friends and have been since El provided every single instrumental for Mike’s massive 2012 album, ’R.A.P. Music.’ Mike also returned the favor with a fiery verse on El’s own 2012 release, the slept-on but critically acclaimed ’Cancer 4 Cure.’

With those two albums as reference points, some critics looked at ’Run The Jewels’ like a victory lap. Oh, they furrowed their overly judgmental brows, this sounds like ’R.A.P. Music’ and ’Cancer 4 Cure’ smushed together. Sure, you can make that argument, because there are sonic and lyrical easter eggs reminding you of those records. But to sell ’Run The Jewels’ short like that, you’d also also be, in the words of Biggie, dead wrong.

It’s a mission statement in the form of a full-length album, given away for free no less, that avoids cliches, cultural reference flops, and tired concepts. Mike and El snatch chains with vigor, throw middle fingers at corrupt politicians, get so high they’ll never float down to earth, and stomp on the hearts of their enemies. But it’s not all bad-guy rap. On album-closer ’A Christmas F–king Miracle,’ their bars aren’t mere rocket launchers filled with bravado but missiles of truth.

The noisy, distorted instrumental sets the tone for a song so remorseful but equally bangin’ — the type of track you’d play at full volume and nod along to with child-like fervor as the lyrics wash over you. But by the fifth spin, the words sink into your gut, which drops deeper than any kickdrum. El spits some of the realest bars of his career when he, through gritted teeth, exclaims that elitists can go f–k themselves for “thinking they’re smarter than us [when] they don’t understand love’s importance.” Likewise, Mike tips his hat to two of his biggest influences (Ice Cube and Spice 1) and holds his heart for a pair of lost rap brethren (Camu Tao and Pimp C) before providing the final words of the album: “We do it for you.”

That you, of course, is the universal you. It’s anyone listening who cared to spend some bandwidth on the ’Run The Jewels’ download or plunked down cash on a ticket or two to see them on tour. When El-P told the Cat’s Cradle audience that we, the fans, made this all possible, he made a good point. Run The Jewels only works if we support it; how else are these two hip-hop stalwarts supposed to pay the bills? It’s a process that works through reciprocation and, thankfully, both sides have played their parts exceptionally.

Catch Run The Jewels live in NYC at Fool’s Gold Day Off this Labor Day (Sept. 2)

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