Run The Jewels are modern hip-hop's most incendiary duo. On the left, there's El-P: The corrosive, pioneering backpacker who made history with the underground record label Def Jux. On the right, you have Killer Mike: The aggressively affable Pan-Africanist son of an Atlanta cop who made a name for himself with stellar features on Outkast's ebullient 2003 double-disc hit Speakerboxxx/The Love Below around the same time El's label took off.
On paper, it's an unlikely partnership. But all of that much-profiled-about camaraderie and chemistry was on full display in First Avenue's Mainroom Friday night – the penultimate stop in their sprawling 14-month tour, which just happened to land on the eve of RTJ 2's one-year anniversary.
Opening with the obligatory title track, Mike and El seamlessly ripped through fan favorites like "Oh My Darling, Don't Cry," "Blockbuster Night Pt. 1," and "36" Chain" with furious precision and steadfastness. "Revolutionary hip-hop" is the sort of hackneyed, catch-all term that many critics would — and have — assigned to RTJ. Thanks to politically charged numbers like "Close your Eyes" and "Lie Cheat and Steal," it's a descriptor that's certainly deserved if not a little lazy.
But, on stage, RTJ aren't really trying to fight the power as much as they're looking to simply burn the entire establishment to the ground. They're streetwise anarchists, verbal assassins with bachelor's degrees in shit-talking who pack enough punchlines to make it all the way to the Apollo and beyond.
For all their bombast and militant swagger, Mike and El share similarly goofy sensibilities. They're genuinely funny, freewheeling' fellas. If they weren't so good at rapping, the two could up a formidable comedy duo with El acting as the endearing straight man to Mike's reliably blunt disposition.
"This motherfucker is lit," Mike said to a stunned El after a rousing rendition of "Banana Clipper." "Also, my balls are sweating, bro."
There was another thoroughly amusing tidbit following the raunchy "Love Again."
"I got to tell you guys, it's been a trip going to strange and interesting cultures on this tour and getting all of them to scream, 'She got that dick in her mouth all day,'" El-P shared.
"And remember, ladies, don't get it wrong — that's a love song," added Killer Mike, seasoned hip-hop sergeant/ardent third-wave feminist.
Unless you're pulling from a Roc-a-Fella sized war chest or flanked by the Roots, live hip-hop can be dicey, sometimes even uninspired. But RTJ aren't just a pair of emcees clumsily moving through the motions, trading barbs on stage. They're a fully formed, high-functioning killing machine. One that's so well oiled, so in sync they not only make a strong case for the best live act in hip-hop, but simply one of the best live acts period.
Rap is enjoying something of a renaissance (RAPaissance?) lately, with the exploding profiles of A-List emcees like Drake and Kendrick Lamar, genre-busting festival denizens like Chance the Rapper and Danny Brown, and traditionally skilled rapper's rappers like Ghostface Killah and Big KRIT.
But RTJ sit somewhere in the center, at that busy intersection where the underground meets the mainstream; the casual listener meets the crate collector and the lyrically profound meet the technically dexterous. And they do it all while reminding us that while those musical dichotomies certainly exist, they don't matter.
So, who really runs this rap shit? Well, if you really don't by now, start listening.
Critic's bias: This is my second time seeing Run The Jewels and so I had reasonably high expectations. Also, Killer Mike is my favorite rapper next only to Danny Brown. No disrespect, El-P. I love you, El-P
Notes on the opener: Fashawn, Cuz Lightgear and RTJ collaborator Boots all had stellar, if disparate, sets. Local rap heroes Brother Ali and Prof dropped in during Fashawn's set. It was indeed dope.
Random notebook dump: Countless shout-outs and dedications to Eyedea, Rhymesayers, and Pimp C just to name a few. Before "All Due Respect" El had this to say regarding the local rap empire's upcoming 20th anniversary: "When I was doing Def Jux [15 years ago] there was only one other fucking label that could compete and that was Rhymesayers."
The crowd: Mostly 420-friendly 20-somethings. I'm guessing they still own Scarface posters. Also, fuckboys were sighted.
Overheard in the crowd:
Guy #1: Man, if I had an apartment down here and no responsibilities, I'd be at First Ave every night.
Guy #2: Dude, you're unemployed and you live in St. Paul.
Guy #3: Yeah, but still.
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