Listening to Run the Jewels, I keep seeing my 12-year-old self at the piano, crying.
Let me explain. One hundred and fifty years ago there was a French dude named Charles-Louis Hanon, who came up with a leviathan collection of painstaking keyboard exercises. In a stroke of marketing genius, he called it The Virtuoso Pianist, unwittingly shackling generations of bored kids to the piano bench while the cool kids got to play outside (it's okay, turns out those kids weren't my friends anyway). In addition to being a special form of torture, over the years Hanon's drills also proved to be one of classical music's most paradigmatic and influential teaching tools.
I'd have made a milquetoast concert pianist, but some students loved those exercises, and thrived on showing them off. Like all workouts, Hanon's are all about repetition. Their endless permutations require that you stretch your hands, isolate each digit, and maintain rhythm and accuracy — in every mode, at every tempo, faster every day. Over, and over, and over. You never arrive, and you can't really conquer them. For perfectionists, this can be a source of insanity, but it forces them to find pleasure in constant escalation: Skill-shining, one-upping themselves, unsatisfied with just five or 10 or 20 impeccable bars, always reaching for more — tormented and enjoying it all the while.
Run the Jewels is what happens when two of this type of person — not pianists this time, but rappers — get together to make an album. These MCs are showy and confident, with rhyming skills at their technical peak, and they've been around long enough to be bored with everyone else in the game. They've found a drive to keep climbing, keep speeding up, and never fall off — and it's only been reinforced by their working together.
We're talking about El-P and Killer Mike, the former a producer and mainstay in Brooklyn hip-hop (originally of Company Flow) and the latter a longtime soldier of Atlanta rap (who you may have heard first on an Outkast record). Both of them rap on the free-to-download Run the Jewels, which makes this the most cohesive hip-hop team-up in recent memory. The two met and started collaborating only a couple years ago, with El-P almost always on production. But their chemistry has fooled many into thinking that they're old buddies. El-P's Cancer 4 Cure and Mike's R.A.P. Music were both dynamite releases of 2012, on which they collaborated and toured exhaustively. Apparently they just couldn't get enough of each other.
Run The Jewels is an album of dare, double-dare, and double-doggie-dare. The two MCs share the exact same amount of play time, giving the album the back-and-forth suspense of a professional court sport. Punchy 8-bar stanzas and long 32-bar chronicles grab and stretch your attention as they play off one another. Mike "moves with the elegance of an African elephant"? Well, then El-P is a "slang pope haranguing the land with a man's flow." The one-upmanship is subtle but pervasive: Mike claims "I'm fat but I dress nice," and two lines later El-P is getting it on "in his church shoes."
Killer Mike's style can be playful or polemical. He's the kind of rapper who can spin a yarn and watch his own back at the same time. El-P is more abstract and all over the place. He's the nasty little guy, swelling himself up to Mike's size with graphic brags and stupefying tongue twisters. Like a cipher from a phone booth, the two can't help but interject, finishing each other's sentences; starting their verses with the same word, concept, or rhyme scheme; and then taking it to a whole other zone. El-P's production is as jagged and dark as his rhymes, with the sole purpose of supporting his and Mike's rapid-fire minds. He's constantly ratcheting up the intensity with arpeggios, over-the-top spoken word samples, and dance music-influenced beat drops.
Like many good rap albums, Run the Jewels pre-empts comparison and criticism, defending itself deftly. Mike in particular buries disses in his verses, like this careful Trinidad James dig: "They all sweet as Little Richard, damn, good God al-molly/It make a nigga like me go 'Woo!' and rob the party." And there's this even bolder reference to Jay-Z and Kanye West: "I rival all of your idols/I stand on towers like Eiffel/Niggas will perish in Paris/Niggas is nothing but parrots."
As for the title, El-P and Mike have said often that Run the Jewels was simply the most badass name they could think of. Even with the LL Cool J reference (from a line in "Cheesy Rat Blues"), you could write it off as unimportant — but the three-word title does conjure thoughts of Watch the Throne. If Run the Jewels is comparing itself with Jay and Ye's similarly eponymous group and album, though, it's to mug the more famous rappers. Both albums are coups of a sort, but while Watch the Throne is mostly gaudy outfits and glib navel-gazing, Run the Jewels is a chaotic, smoldering heist. To analogize more simply: Run the Jewels is to Watch the Throne what Dog Day Afternoon is to Ocean's Eleven.
El-P and Killer Mike know that we'll be blinded by flashy, big-budget collaborations every summer, and they set out this year to show that they can do it better, and for free. Just by locking themselves in a room and working. Because while the rappers you thought you liked were outside playing — signing multimillion-dollar deals with Samsung or projecting their face on random buildings — El-P and Killer Mike were inside, practicing.