“Run the Jewels,” the opening salvo from El-P and Killer Mike’s duo debut, accomplishes a lot. It’s the title track from a self-titled LP, tasked with proving their chemistry and establishing a vibe. It gets the job done. The beat, a concussive mix of thunderous bass and tirelessly looping tambourine and snare, is a perfect litmus test for the sleek and serrated cuts that follow. The two MCs push through short verses that quickly escalate with mind-numbing wordplay and complex rhythms. With his last lines, Mike solidifies their plan of attack:
“These streets is full with the wolves that starve for the week, so they after the weak,” he growls. “In a land full of lambs I am, and I'll be damned if I don't show my teeth.”
The 30 minutes that follow are nothing but teeth, a gnawing and gnashing onslaught that’s as fun as it is formidable. These guys are most certainly wolves, and they bite. Hard.
“The overall thesis comes down to, 'We're going to kick ass,'” Mike says during a conference call with the Xpress. He and El build on each other’s points with ease, pushing each other much in the same way they do on record. “When you're kicking ass, you don't take all day to do it. You get in there, and you get the job done. Not rushing but doing it simply and effectively. If you're doing kung fu, if you're practicing, you're doing forms, and it almost looks like tai chi because your arms are spread and you're kicking. But when it comes time to fight, you're using strikes, you’re going straight to the opponent, and that's what this album, lyrically, felt like. It felt like a street fight.”
Both rappers boast distinct and exciting identities. As a producer, the Brooklyn-based El-P — legally Jaime Meline — unites dark and immersive atmosphere with jagged rhythms, creating tightly contained maelstroms that are incredibly hard to resist. His flow is sly and adaptable, capable of shifting from painstaking build-up to high-speed syncopation without missing a beat. Both of these skill sets are at their best on last year’s Cancer 4 Cure.
Michael “Killer Mike” Render also released a career-defining effort last year. R.A.P. Music, produced entirely by El-P, sees that dogged production pushing the Atlanta rapper to new heights. His bruising social commentary is expressed through equally intense vocals, building from a menacing drawl to a deep-throated snarl. He might be best known for his early Outkast collaborations — his show-stopping verse on the otherwise trivial “The Whole World” makes the song essential — but Mike has grown into a steadfast guardian of intelligent hip-hop.
But as solid as their solo credentials are, they both value collaboration. They came of age in hip-hop groups — El in Company Flow, Mike in the Dungeon Family — and they see the form as an essential part of hip-hop, one that is sadly overshadowed by the overblown egos that dominate today’s rap landscape. “Hip-hop can be very self-serving,” Mike explains, “especially when you're doing solo records.” Run the Jewels is in part an attempt to return to the inclusive energy that both artists feel was a staple of hip-hop in the ‘90s.
“When I was a kid, I felt like I could be a part of Run-D.M.C.,” El-P explains. “From a creative perspective, rap needs [that]. You get two people in a room with a flute each, and you're going to hear something else. One person taking a solo can be brilliant and is amazing, but it's a limited and singular perspective on music and art. There's a magic and a beauty that comes with collaboration where two people form one whole, and it's something else.”
Run the Jewels is about the exuberance of two imposing talents dueling in the studio, but even in that context, such thoughtful rappers can’t help but address some weighty issues.
Dominating bass knocks duel with vicious synthesizer on “DDFH.” Mike seizes the darkness, spitting about “cops in the ghetto” that “move like the Gestapo,” one of a litany of harsh realities that El-P says could “make a sane man walk around with a blunderbuss/ Peel another round, make a sound that is thunderous.” But even when they’re talking about such serious topics, the mood is jocular and infectious.
“We were just having a blast being rappers,” Mike offers. “We were just having fun, and it was challenging because we're technicians. We just went with it. We just flexed on this shit.”
who: El-P and Killer Mike, with Despot and Kool A.D.
where: The Orange Peel
when: Thursday, Aug. 8 (8 p.m./9 p.m. $18/$20. theorangepeel.net)