Killer Mike and El-P must’ve not gotten the memo. Both pushing 40 years of age, it’s supposed to be enough to have had illustrious careers of ATL/Dungeon Family domination (Mike) and heading one of the most important alternative rap labels ever (El). Even more recent projects, such as 2012’s R.A.P. Music and Cancer 4 Cure, showed that the veterans were still alive and kicking, Mike was still rapping impeccably and bravely, El-P still making dystopian future beats and showcasing native New Yorker grit. But, to link up at this point in their careers, to rebrand themselves into something new entirely? It’s a move completely unprecedented in the history of rap music, and with two critically-acclaimed albums from Run the Jewels in just two years, the duo seems to have finally found the winning formula they’d been searching for.
With sophomore album RTJ2 being branded so similarly to the debut LP, I was skeptical of their ability to tread new ground, and move beyond the admittedly excellent showcase of sheer rapping talent they had set out to prove on their first album. I liked tracks like ‘Banana Clipper’ as much as anyone, but for two rappers who are overtly political and revolutionary in their solo music, it was interesting and a tad disappointing to see that aspect left out of their collaborative work in favor of (again, warranted) proclamations of rhyming talent. It’s not entirely unexpected, given the goals of the project: El-P sacrifices some of his sharp-witted paranoia and Mike might have to leave behind Atlanta-rooted eclecticism, but the result was something substantial in its own right, with both parts ceding to, yet supporting, the whole.
If there’s one thing to say about RTJ2, it’s that the songwriting has improved, the range broadened drastically. There’s still plenty of iconoclastic vitriol, if that’s your thing—one of the songs is named “Close Your Eyes (and Count to Fuck)”, appropriately enlisting Zack de la Rocha of Rage Against the Machine fame. But we also get tracks like “Crown”, with Mike’s masterful storytelling giving advice on finding religion despite past sin. On “Lie, Cheat, Steal” the braggadocio is still in full effect, but it’s anchored by the hook, and enriched by Killer Mike’s inciting verse, questioning the ethics of a MLK-style pacifism in a world as corrupt as ours. This is further exemplified on “Early”, hook provided by Beyonce-collaborator BOOTS. Killer Mike begins with a vivid description of police brutality that seems not so unrealistic in light of recent news events, a subject that Killer Mike’s not been shy to speak about. Not to be shown up, El-P spits a characteristically melancholy verse, ending with the sobering prospect of “go to home, go to sleep, up again, early.” Whereas on the first album, each track felt like a vehicle to showcase the technical ability of Mike and El, at RTJ2’s high points it feels as it should, the technical ability is a necessary component of a song with its own motives, a single cog that supports the piece.
The low-points are few and far between: the cringe-worthy “Love Again (Akinyele Back)”, two middle-aged guys trading sexual fantasies, but even that is saved by Gangsta Boo’s feature—she’s low key been having a killer year, by the way. The production, as great as it is, can get repetitive, though it is much more layered than the first LP. In some ways, it feels like Mike and El aren’t utilizing the full potential of their duo, over the space of an album. We could have an El-P instrumental track, a solo Mike track, or one featuring a suited ATL collaborator (a la Big Boi on the first album), or anything to deviate from the trade-off verses, or Mike Verse/Hook/El Verse structure. These are mostly my fantasy RTJ3 requests rather than legitimate criticisms, but I do think there is more the duo could do to experiment with the limits of that relationship.
Maybe the question is: does RTJ as a unit, even care about that kind of experimentalism? Even though this project is noticeably deeper and more nuanced, the main goal is still to emphasize sick rapping ability, both in technique and lyrics focused around that subject. Fans seem to eat it up, perhaps because there’s few as self-assured as these two veterans on the mic. Can they keep pumping out tongue twister odes to their own greatness on RTJ3? Will we even see RTJ3, or a deviation from that sequence, something more conceptual or political? Killer Mike and El-P have the talent to produce either of these, and many more. My only hope is they continue to do so, and making politically aggressive, exciting examples of both the potential of hip-hop and the potential of a duo. In any case, RTJ2 is a solid step towards broadening their sonic and songwriting palette, and is sure to leave fans waiting for the next installment from hip-hop’s crooked buddy cops.