Run the Jewels album review

run the jewels album reviewJess Matthews checks out the highly-anticipated debut longplayer from El-P and Killer Mike:

Run the Jewels’ eponymous album was heralded as the brazen anti-hero of the Hip Hop world. I’m not sure if a stream of diatribe about fish scale cocaine, bitches (white and other, in excess) and owning superfluous luxury objects really classifies music as daring or heroic but maybe it’s just a bit of a slow burner.

I’ve said this once and I’ll say it again… I am a little white girl with little to zero knowledge of the foreign world of Rap and Hip Hop. So reviewing Run The Jewels was certainly a challenge for me. Importantly though, my stance as a consumer of music has a massive impact on how I digested this album.  I tried to look at it from a well-informed rap person’s point of view but then realised with uncomfortable aplomb (again) that I am definitely not ghetto and nor do I easily understand the intricacies or lyrical depth of music that is spat out rather than melodically delivered.

So I looked at Run the Jewels from a musical evolutionary point of view, in terms of what weighting it has in the evolution our sonic landscape.

Run the Jewels isn’t full of bangers, and it’s devoid of all the chopped up, mashed up, heaving synths, draconian bass and punctuated vocals that we’ve become accustomed to…. so no, your ears don’t naturally prick up upon first listen, but maybe that’s actually one of its very strongest points. Unapologetically basic and raw, Run the Jewels takes a while to unravel but when it does it grows with a kind of endurable familiarity.

Partially the genius of Run The Jewels lies in its simplicity. That is, when you disregard the purely Hip Hop components we’re presented with a record that remains unapologetically true to RTJ’s style but also gives audiences the ability to interpret and recontextualize as they best see fit. The process of which gives rise to a personal and subjective evolution of sound. It’s those records that stay with us, the ones that are tweaked but only slightly; when Jay Z remixed 99 Problems, when Flume remixed New Navy, when Wait What fused The xx with Notorious BIG.

Alright alright, enough of the sonic evolution, musical landscape hippy bullshit. In terms of Run the Jewels as a hip hop album, the highly anticipated collaboration between El-P and Killer Mike was so much an organic fruition that their debut album has a type of comfortable, authentic familiarity. Overall the album sounds like they’ve been finishing one another’s sentences as long as they’ve been walking through the other’s front door and opening the fridge.

Mostly devoid of the heavy subject matter that both El-P and Mike’s earlier work is riddled with, their debut album as a pair instead focuses on what feels like some sort of complexly token Hip Hop rite of passage between two old friends who are testing the waters together as they prepare to take over the world. At the same time though, they manage to maintain that casual how big’s ya dick? colloquialism that is simultaneously coloured by contest and kudos.

Lyrically the album is fuelled by a school yard-type tet-a-te, rich in double entendres, wordplay and cultural Hip Hop references. Its cleverness lies though in the ends that Mike & El-P take it to. The whole thing feels like its providing you with a privileged fly on the wall insight into the dynamic of their relationship with all its flaws and mystery.

For that exact reason 36 is probably my favourite track here. After rolling through a spectrum of meaning it arrives at the subtle underhandedness of El-P and Mike’s personal jokemanship. The hook of the track ‘and I walk around in a 36 inch chain’ simultaneously perpetuates and challenges the central themes of Hip Hop by referencing its affiliation of status to material aestheticism but, at the same time it evokes a negative portrayal of its inherent egotism.

El-P uses hyperbole to exaggerate the absurdity of the emblematic practice of chains as way of displaying material wealth. A 36 inch chain would not only be so impractical in its length and therefore utterly ridiculous but it would, at the same time, be so heavy that it would weigh you down…the physical affect of which would be an overly pronounced swagger. Mike and El-P claim that they walk like they have a 36 inch chain, whether they do physically or not.

The delivery of the album is what leaves the biggest sonic indentation; it’s streamlined, drip fed and micro-minutely timed. The staccato rhythm impressively rarely varies even though both rappers progress through a full range of emotion; from nonchalant to borderline hurricane unhinged.

So, you can appreciate that it takes a lot to dissect Run the Jewels; meaning is multifaceted and the dynamism in its conveyance opens it up for a spectrum of subjectivity in its consumption. Admittedly, sometimes, Run the Jewels falls short and feels more lackadaisical and less casual-laid-back-cool, implying that it’s lacking in innovativeness or could have been done better. But arguably that’s what also makes it tricky, and, clever. Potentially that was the point the whole way along and Run the Jewels are just implementing a sleek nonchalance as a style to reiterate their position as alternative, left-of-field Hip Hop producers. With chains. 36 inches or other.

In essence, it’s the rough edges, slight unattainability and overall je ne sais quo that will see Run the Jewels furtively creep into its position as iconic underground status.

jess matthews


Review by Jess Matthews