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Are Run the Jewels a Top Five Hip-Hop Duo Yet?

Are Run the Jewels a Top Five Hip-Hop Duo Yet?
Photo by Timothy Saccenti/Courtesy of Biz3 Publicity
In the micro sense, Run the Jewels exists in a time where nationally known rap duos are nearly extinct. Mind, there are  still rappers who link together for a money grab (Drake/Future); rappers who have mutually been fans of one another (2 Chainz/Lil Wayne); and the traditional rapper/producer pairings. Where those pairings work and don’t (see the all-important notion of chemistry), Run the Jewels has mashed together the best of their aggression, their timing and dark wit to become arguably the best duo since 2010. In the smallest of pictures, the rise of Run the Jewels, and in particular the second acts of Killer Mike and El-P, should be lauded. They’ve worked on three projects since 2012 and eventually became more famous together than they ever were apart.

Killer Mike as an orator is one of the best people available for the job. In the history of performance music, Killer Mike has one of those voices. James Brown had his shriek. Michael Jackson had his adlibs. Prince had his falsetto. Chuck D has the kind of voice that will choke you if you ignore him; KRS-One’s own instrument of deliverance works the same way. Mike’s voice somehow got the perfect marriage of Southern pastor meets war general. Anyone who has followed Killer Kill from Adamsville will tell you that if you placed him in a different generation, he’d probably be a career politician, or at least an alderman. But he’s a rapper. The kind of rapper that can jump from helming one of the year’s best albums with a friend he’s only had for five years into the political fire that was the 2016 Presidential election. Yes, that was him next to Bernie Sanders stumping for the Vermont senator as he tried to topple Hillary Clinton. That was him swept up headlines and features pieces for Politico.

And there was El Producto, the Def Jux captain who through Company Flow had already gained his hip-hop letterman jacket and all the patches, right there along for the ride. They talked about everything. They cried over the DA in Ferguson refusing to bring up charges against Darren Wilson in the 2014 death of Michael Brown. Three projects dating back to Mike’s last solo effort, 2012’s R.A.P. Music had made them lauded among rap critics and mostly ignored by traditional radio and heads alike. They didn’t care. Run the Jewels raps with abrasion, punching you in the neck with these disgusting punchlines and even more morose yet gorgeous productions. They were the voice of the revolution in 2014 and carried over into being two large, opinionated, anti-establishment rap asteroids who would continually beat you upside the head for fun.
In the micro, RTJ3 exists because of the work provided on the previous two RTJ albums. The album came out on Christmas Day, two weeks ahead of its original January 13 release date. Yes, people screwed up their year-end release lists once they found out that Mikey and Jamie decided to give the world a Christmas miracle with their third effort. Did they announce, "our bad"? Not really; they moved on to questioning whether or not Drake’s liaison with Jennifer Lopez really needed an “insider” to determine whether or not it was real. Or whether or not Soulja Boy was telling the truth in an awkward retelling of a robbery attempt at his studio. RTJ should be the main topic of discussion at the moment. It's a passionate, almost crossroads moment for both El-P and Killer Mike, and yet it’s flying under a pretense of merely existing. RTJ3 has moments of existential crisis for both men.

The political statements aren’t as baroque in tone and nature as they were on RTJ2, but they’re there. In other words, RTJ3 packs everything you liked about RTJ2 and makes it a bit of a bleak blues album yearning for optimism. “This life will stress you like Orson Welles on the radio,” El-P raps on the album closer, “A Report to the Shareholders/Kill Your Masters.” Mike deadpans with exhaustion on the Boots-assisted “2100” that he’ll never kill another human being in the name of a government. Hell, he spent the rather triumphant bombast behind “Talk to Me” offering a middle finger to a certain guy with a toupee and spray tan about to enter the White House.

Other players have also come into RTJ’s orbit and flourished. The herky-jerky yelps of Danny Brown feast on “Hey Kids (Bumaye)”. Miami eternal rap goddess Trina somehow hits all cylinders on “Panther Like a Panther,” and former Rage Against The Machine frontman Zack De La Rocha returns to close everything out. The world of Run the Jewels is looking out and noticing that all the fiery preaching and call to arms they did two years prior led to the people choosing an even worse dystopia. “Thursday in the Danger Room” is a clear representative of how bleak it’s gotten for Jamie and Mikey. Here, El-P tries to set up a visual that looks like the last 15 minutes of Rogue One and then Killer Mike shows up like the mini-horror movie that occurs right near the very end.

Run The Jewels are three for three in the good-to-great album scale. If RTJ 2 was their hallmark and RTJ was their gritty, surprise "we can actually do this” move then RTJ3 is representative of the grizzled rap veterans who not only care about making music but care about making important music. El-P’s usually spaced out sonic fury here gets twisted with a little help from Kamasi Washington and TV On the Radio's Tunde Adebimpe. But the question we asked ourselves walking away from it is this: are we ready to put Killer Mike and El-P as a duo in the rap pantheon of great rap duos?

OutKast, for all intents and purposes, owns this crown; there’s no way on God’s green earth that they’ll be dispatched from it anytime soon. So we cannot immediately assume that RTJ will plant their flag at the summit. We also cannot substitute RTJ for UGK simply because rapping about dope in a way that has become noir bleeds into Killer Mike’s aesthetic. He’s the guy who sold dope at Morehouse, no doubt influenced by the sounds coming out of Port Arthur, Texas. So they can’t necessarily be the second-best duo of all-time. 8Ball & MJG, EPMD, the brothers Thornton of the Clipse? They all figure a case to being in the Top 5, if not Top 10. Are RTJ better than Eric B & Rakim, the DJ/rapper combo where the rapper changed how everyone rapped from here on out? No, because there’s little bits and pieces of Rakim within Killer Mike’s delivery and blunt force. A Tribe Called Quest is not a duo, they’re a group, even if their strongest parts (Phife & Q-Tip) could fight for the throne in some minds. Same goes for Run-DMC because one cannot simply ignore Jam Master Jay.

Method Man & Redman have only two albums to their name and one of them, Blackout! has an all-time classic opening salvo in “Da Rockwilder” not to mention their “How High” collaboration. DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince? RTJ has leapt past them, even if “Summertime” is the most eternal summer rap track of all. Where in the macro of it all, where the only mainstream duo working are two brothers from Tupelo, Mississippi and are creating massive party records and cranky old timers like The LOX are still keeping the idea of a group, much less a duo alive? Killer Mike & El-P arrived at this point after having solo success on their own terms. Then they together became famous on their own terms, wrote their narrative into Marvel comics, Late Show skits with Colbert, festival stages and more. On “Cali Ticketon,” they playfully question the idea of performing inside of a sold-out Madison Square Garden.

Run the Jewels have now emptied a clip in creating three honest-to-God brilliant projects within a five-year span. Solo artists usually don’t have that kind of consistency; no duo save for maybe Gangstarr, Chad & Bun, and those two Georgia boys from Atlanta can have a claim to that. In terms of undisputed rap duo champions, Run the Jewels are in the Top 5. And a potential fight goes with that.

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Brandon Caldwell has been writing about music and news for the Houston Press since 2011. His work has also appeared in Complex, Noisey, the Village Voice & more.
Contact: Brandon Caldwell