More than once I have seen Run The Jewels described as hip hop’s answer to Hollywood’s “odd couple/ buddy cop” duos, and whilst I’m sure they would rather die than admit to any affinity with America’s law enforcement right now (I’ll come back to that later), let’s run with the movie analogy for a minute and flash back to the origin story… The year is 2010; Michael “Killer Mike” Render, a 35 year-old Atlanta, Georgia black man ten years into a rap career that has never really reached the stratospheric heights it has always threatened to, is introduced to Jaime “El-P” Meline, a 35 year-old white New Yorker whose own rap skills have thus far been overshadowed by his outstanding innovations in the field of hip hop production. El crafts a whole album’s worth of beats for Mike, who responds by adding his most enthusiastic, energised performances to date. The resulting record, R.A.P. Music, is released two years later to unanimous critical acclaim, just weeks before El-P’s third full-length Cancer 4 Cure – itself the finest and most well-received work in its creator’s solo discography. During this period, and in the months that follow, living together on a shared tour bus, the two bond over common interests (chief among them marijuana and the curvier aspects of the female form) and become best friends; not showbiz pals, but real best friends. They decide to form a proper musical partnership, and name it Run The Jewels, after a slang term for robbing someone of their watch, rings, chains etc.; they record an album in a matter of weeks, with both men tag-team rapping over Meline’s production which they then proceed to release as a free download, and which attracts even more praise than the previous year’s solo joints. Emboldened by the positive reaction, they head straight back to the studio to work on a follow-up…
…Flash forward to 2014. Unleashed upon the world just in time for Halloween, Run The Jewels’ second album was a blockbuster smash, a sequel in the same mould as better-than-the-original classics like The Godfather II, The Empire Strikes Back and The Dark Knight: longer, darker and more bombastic than its already awesome predecessor, RTJ2 was bigger and better in pretty much every way. For a start, Mike and El seemed to take themselves more seriously this time around – which isn’t to say that their debut was in any way slight; it was just obvious to anyone with ears that both men were having so much fun during the sessions that the end result occasionally sounded like, well, two guys goofing around. Here they sounded more focused, as if the first record’s success had instilled in them a renewed sense of self-belief, and provided reassurance that there really was an audience out there (outside of the die-hards that had followed Mike since his first guest spots with Outkast, and El since his Company Flow days) not just willing but eager to hear what they had to say. As if pre-empting the transition from underdogs to real contenders, Meline cranked out his most accessible set of beats yet, peppering his typically apocalyptic sci-fi-influenced productions with funky fanfares and pop hooks, in the process inverting the usual slide in quality that comes whenever underground artists start to flirt with the mainstream. They also took the opportunity to talk passionately about the things that mattered to them, and spat flaming venom at everything and everyone else: haters, fuck-boys, inferior MCs and those who were supposed to care but blatantly didn’t – politicians, the government, the church and, especially, the police. On “Close Your Eyes (And Count To Fuck)”, featuring a career-best guest verse from that other famously furious firebrand Zack De La Rocha, the pair eloquently detailed their Robin Hood-style agenda (“Conditions create a villain, the villain is given vision / The vision becomes a vow to seek vengeance on all the vicious / Liars and politicians, profiteers of the prisons / The forehead engravers, enslavers of men and women”), having moments earlier suggested to their listeners that the most effective form of protest would be to start a riot or kill a cop; elsewhere, “Early” found Render the victim of racial profiling, hauled off in a squad car for no good reason in front of his young kids and neighbours, having to bite his tongue as the arresting officers manhandled his wife for letting emotion get the better of her.
Whilst none of its lyrics appeared to directly reference the killing of Mike Brown, or the events that followed in Ferguson, Missouri, one couldn’t help but suspect these – and other similar, less publicised – events were a major influence on RTJ2. But it wasn’t just what the duo were saying that made them such a compelling listen, it was also they way they said it. Dedicated students of hip hop classicists like Scarface and Nas (who loved the duo so much he signed them to his own Mass Appeal imprint), both Mike and El had already proven themselves to be gifted lyricists, but here they took their wordplay skills to the next level, showing they were more than capable of trading tongue-twisters with the best of them. After half a decade hanging out, each man’s style has rubbed off to some degree on the other and El in particular benefited from the exchange, with many of his verses delivered in the same bouncy double-time favoured in Mike’s native Dirty South; you only have to check out the start of “Oh My Darling (Don’t Cry)”, whereby he manages to compare Pimp C and Biggie Smalls to God, slyly reference Game Of Thrones and a Marvel supervillain, and come up with an eye-watering analogy for sodomy in the space of approximately twenty seconds for evidence. But irrespective of how good either was individually, it was Mike and El together that was the real draw. Unlike, say, Dre and Snoop’s teacher/ student dynamic, Flavor Flav playing the fool to Chuck D’s straight man or Clipse’s fraternal bond, Run The Jewels’ obvious and irresistible chemistry was all about friendship, both men looking upon the other with mutual respect and admiration, as equals; perhaps the closest comparison would be Ghostface Killah and Raekwon on those early Wu solo releases, two rappers so similar in terms of both style and substance that it was often as hard to tell them apart as it was to separate them.
Of course there was no getting around the fact that, as a black man and a white man standing shoulder to shoulder, they made for a slightly unconventional hip hop pairing, but that only made Mike and Jaime more loveable, and it was almost comical to think of how much the fact of their friendship was likely to offend the inherently bigoted sensibilities of the very people they were fighting to educate. These were good guys, smart, funny guys, tough guys with big hearts who would give their music away for free and yet still inspire enough devotion among their fans to raise tens of thousands of dollars in donations; guys who worshipped at the temple of hip hop but were forward-thinking enough to swerve its most tiresome clichés (allowing Gangsta Boo – one of the finest female rappers around – to completely out-filth them on rough sex anthem “Love Again (Akinyele Back)”) and call out as bullshit the more unsavoury aspects (drug dealing, gang violence etc.) that have for so long given the genre a bad name. Yes, Render may have acknowledged the elephant in the room during his gut-wrenching onstage monologue on the night the grand jury delivered their verdict on Ferguson, pointing out that he knew as a white man Meline’s life mattered more to many than his, but it was clear he knew El himself didn’t share those views: staring down the barrel of 40 and as happy in each other’s company as children playing, it seemed as though as far as the pair were concerned, nothing could cause a rift, least of all the colour of their skin, and it was this heartwarming camaraderie above all else that made this the most compelling, most enjoyable album of 2014. An odd couple, then? Maybe, but Riggs and Murtagh? Mills and Somerset? Nah, fuck a buddy cop movie, and fuck the police; these guys were superheroes, the motherfucking hip hop Avengers, and RTJ2 was a weapon as powerful as Thor’s hammer.