Album review: Run the Jewels, 'Run the Jewels'

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3.5 stars (out of 4)

After last year’s one-two punch of El-P’s “Cancer 4 Cure” and Killer Mike’s El-P-produced “R.A.P. Music,” the two artists come together, like a single fist to the sternum, on “Run the Jewels” (Fool’s Gold).

The new project is less a continuation of last year’s collaborations than a spirited, room-wrecking tangent. El-P – a master of ominous atmosphere and acidic commentary from the front lines of an urban war zone – has never sounded more scathingly unhinged as an MC. Killer Mike, who brought an urban philosopher’s mind set to “R.A.P. Music,” conjures that same level of intensity when he rains down insults alongside his new sidekick.

It’s a smart move by two savvy hip-hop veterans; rather than trying to one-up two ambitious career-peak albums, they go back to the source of the music that inspired them in the first place. That means battle-rhyming and vanquishing unseen rivals with verbal swordsmanship. It means tag-team vocals that echo the call-and-response of vintage Run-D.M.C. and Ultramagnetic MC’s. It means getting hilariously sleazy with Prince Paul on “Twin Hype.” And it means a sense of playfulness and outrageousness that is the equivalent of a wild, weekend bender after a year of achievement.

El-P’s production is typically sparse, but without some of his hallmark sci-fi and industrial trappings. In the margins, there are still strange happenings in the way the synthesizers snake and squirm, but mostly it’s about big beats and bigger voices. The songs slam one into the next like bumper cars, and the rappers’ verses leapfrog each other in a nonstop game of one-upmanship. El-P plays it fast and furiously; he piles up syllables and nimble internal rhymes with giddy dexterity. Killer Mike blasts out threats more deliberately, as if to savor each one. “Every word murderful/Surgical, painful, purposeful,” he announces on “Job Well Done.”

Above all, there’s a sense of letting loose. On “Job Well Done,” there’s an audible “Ohhh!” as Mike gets in the ring and pummels another opponent with a string of ferocious putdowns.

Only on the final track, “A Christmas (expletive) Miracle,” do things take a hard left toward the introspective, as El-P and Killer Mike ruminate on their less-than-festive childhoods. Perhaps it’s a hint about where one of the most potent new tandems in hip-hop goes next.

greg@gregkot.com

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