This is the first article of my “Vs.” series of reviews. Rather than do a lengthy breakdown of one album, I take two albums that I feel are of similar caliber and aptitude, and I pit them against each other. This isn’t a sanctioned fight; if you want that, continue to debate about Born Sinner and Yeezus. I want to take vs. to a secluded location where we can really get technical and highlight some raw talent in its raw state.
Summer Knights by Joey Bada$$
Run the Jewels by Run the Jewels (Killer Mike and El-P),
First, let’s get familiar with the artists:
Joey Bada$$ – School of Rhyme: New York Orthodox, All Chapters – Joey Badas$$ uses so many styles it’s not funny. But what makes it funny is— it’s all New York. He “abuses” his accent; meaning, he makes words rhyme that, on paper, absolutely don’t rhyme. But it’s not like he hides behind this technique: lyrically, he’s just a plain-out murderous death-copter. He could abandon the technique together and still crush… sh!t name somebody, it really doesn’t matter. But that’s tradition— anybody who knows NYMCs throughout history knows this is nothing but history acknowledging and repeating itself. “FRESH for the 2013”, as they used to put it. I think his track “Waves” is a great exhibition of his rhyme-scheme flexology:
Now, Joey is a beast, this we know. But we also know that he KNOWS he’s a beast in his OWN mind; he wants 3-4 mil from whoever wants to sign him. Arrogant? Yes. But I guarantee, Lord spare his life and give him the right production team, he could easily manifest his worth over his next two albums. Maybe even on his next one.
Run the Jewels – School of Rhyme: Dirty South /Flash the Message – Killer Mike, modern day goliath from the depths of ATL, and El-P, an underground staple from BK, come together to form the group Run the Jewels, so we’ve got two different schools of rhyme at play here. You know Killer Mike for everything from Bonecrusher’s summer smash hit Never Scared to Burn off his latest, damn-near anarchist revolution-sparking release, R.A.P. Music. He has a very strong, in-your-face delivery, similar in some ways to KRS-One; I would even go so far as to call him a “Teacha” in KRS-One fashion. But his culture is without question Dirty South bred, so you also get a notable amount of playa-ism. And on top of all that, there’s the ‘killer’— bruh is no question more militant than the average southern MC, which definitely sets him apart.
Cats may not know as much, however, about El-P; I had to do research myself. Once-called El Producto, it turns out he’s an underground legend. I dug up one of his most recent solo joints. Check this out:
So… if I say Lethal Weapon, do you follow? On both levels, I mean. Because on one hand El-P’s a deadly MC, but, on the other hand, Killer Mike and El-P are practically brothas from other mothers. It was insightful for them to recognize they had so much in common stylistically; the biggest difference is that El-P has a more comedic element to his presentation. Not to mention, he’s reppin Brooklyn and produces his own music. The result, in Big K.R.I.T. fashion, is that there’s harmony in the overall expression of his art.
…Oh, this review is about to get interesting. …Thank you, Jesus ((O_o))
Now, see a brief overview of the projects:
Summer Knights features 17 tracks of Joey Bada$$ putting all of New York on his back and single-handedly embodying the 90’s Hip Hop sound that it’s more traditionally known for; elder statesman NYMCs are beaming with pride over this project. In a time where so many new artists lack foundation in their styles, it’s damn refreshing to see one with a sense of and appreciation for history. At the same time, Joey Bada$$ makes the legacy his own, never d!ckriding the greats, but making a case for his own respective greatness. And you get to know Joey personally as he delves into his own experiences and ambitions, using phraseology that only he would think to use. One of the feats of this album is that Joey proves you can be sentimental without being soft; or shall we say “proves again”, because we know of a certain Tupac Shakur who was gifted in that regard. And this project is so dope, I don’t mind bringing Tupac up to make a comparison that big.
As the first project of the newly-formed group Run the Jewels, the album Run the Jewels features Killer Mike and El-P going Snowden and dropping a 10 track album of “we think you oughta know”, bolstered by Hip Hop’s seldom-summoned legacy of electro sound. Along with that 80’s vibe, you also get plenty of “flash the message” with this album, complete with folded arms, b-boy stances, and emphatic “HUH!” punctuations. Picture the unapologeticness of Immortal Technique, but with the reckless abandon of Eminem. The MCs use the chaotic, depraved state of the world as an excuse to themselves embrace chaos and depravity in an effort to save the world. …I think. You know how Jamie Foxx killed so many crackas [they had whips and owned slaves, that’s a definitive cracka] in Django Unchained that it made you wonder if… maybe he just liked killing? That’s the way Run the Jewels goes off on this album.
Now dissect the production:
Summer Knights — I call the production on this album (you ready for this, you’re gonna love it) ‘New York Orthodox’. A lot of sweet jazz instrumentation samples and chords— no softness intended. When I say ‘sweet’, I mean you can ‘taste’ the sound. It’s got ‘flavor’ to it. See, a lot of MCs drop albums in New York. But… how can I put this… I get tired of hearing an instrumental, and knowing exactly what note is gonna come next in the sequence on the very first listen. That’s pop to me: you’re choosing notes based on pleasing the crowd instead of on what you’re trying to express. Speaking of nothing sweet, the sound is also nice and gritty. Live samples, muddy basslines all over the place— and DJing!! It’s mad nice to hear some scratching and cutting and “run-it-back” intros before the beat drops. Word is Bond. …No, that’s one of the tracks with some nice scratching and cutting. There’s an array of producers featured on this project— Lee Bannon, Navie. D, Alchemist, Kirk Knight—but they overall come together to produce a quality sound with little fault to find.
Run the Jewels — DON’T SLEEP ON THIS PRODUCTION. Some fool out there is gonna say it’s not a “Hip Hop” sound; I would wager that this person was born in the 90s. What we have here is what I’m gonna call a ‘Hip Hop Origins’ sound; in a frightening way, the production on Run the Jewels is actually more Hip Hop-essence than the production on Summer Knights! People forget just how much variety was in the Hip Hop sound when it was still in its birthing stages. 1980’s Bronx; Detroit techno; Run DMC’s Walk this Way. You hear all of that in this project. It’s boom-bap, it’s electro, it’s rock, it’s dub step, it’s trap— babies might not appreciate what’s going on, but true Hip Hop heads will feel something special in this sound. And you can mostly thank El-P for that, because he’s the chief producer for the project. The good thing about having one main producer is, again, the harmony. All the tracks on this project complement each other and you get a nice sonic theme and tone. At the same time, however, each track individually does something fresh with the sound; what’s more, there’s a lot of improvisation on all the tracks, where accentuating sounds can be found in various places keeping the track from going stale.
Peep the marketing battle:
Marketing: The combination of a phenomenal track record, New York nationalism and sheer bravado ensured that Summer Knights would be a success. I couldn’t even download the doggone album for a few hours after its release because traffic was so heavy. Not to mention the release of a few wildly successful singles from the project; I can’t lie to you, I played 95 to Infinity one time and was bored with everything I heard for the next 2 weeks after that. Just today I walked around the house hollin’ “NINETY NIIINE!!!” for no reason. Unfortunately the video to the song didn’t rock quite as hard:
…Fortunately, the video wasn’t released until VERY recently. By then, it was too late; the hype was out of its larval stage and into a full blown PANIC.
Now, the gut reaction is to say that Run the Jewels lost the marketing battle; frankly, some of you are just hearing about their album for the first time here (this is why I write btw). Two things. First, if you watch [adult swim], you aren’t just hearing about this album for the first time. You know those cool bumpers that they use? Well, Williams Street has been pushing this project through those bumpers for the last few weeks; you were just too fixated on Stewie Griffen’s head to notice. Remember when I did that review on Flying Lotus? They push him, too. And Witchdoctor? Him too. But the thing about [adult swim] advertising is this: it’s underground, at least in my book. Because a lot of you still don’t know who Flying Lotus or Witchdoctor are right now. Which leads to my second point: when a group like Run the Jewels uses [adult swim] to promote their album… you kinda get the impression they’re not looking for crazy attention. They’re looking for crazy attention— the attention of crazy people like me who watch [adult swim]. Underground Hip Hop heads, Trip Hop heads, anime heads, stoners, college bums… People who embrace deconstructionist, anti-establishment material, ya dig? Marketing… that’s kinda the opposite of the point to a project like this. F#CK the market. That’s more like it.
Compare what lyrically goes down on each of these projects:
I would call the lyrical perspective of Summer Knights ‘first person, regional’. Joey Bada$$ is doing what most MCs do: talking about himself. He’s keeping it very real though, which is something a lot of MCs DON’T do. And on the note of realness, what he does that’s interesting is he really flexes his NY accent so that you really get a taste of the culture in which he was raised. On top of that, he’s exceptionally introspective on this project. Everybody tells the story of themselves, but what ends up happening is that they all start sounding the same because they don’t really look for that thing within themselves that makes them unique. Joey’s attention to detail and gift for finding unique ways to convey his feelings makes all his work come off fresher than a million other MCs expressing the same sentiments. For instance, a moment of reflection on his mother:
Drop out of college in advance, then hit the ground running like it’s ants/
In my pants honey…Pop was a bumbaclot/
Now the Queen Bee Mummy; ugh, I love her titty tissue/
Disrespect my blood and it’s a issue/
She like, “Is you on the cover for real? Aw, you so official/
Now go ahead and buy you some shoes that really fit you”/
I know she always thinkin little me/
But now I got big literally: worldwide and physically/
…I won’t sit here and front, Joey Bada$$ lyrically crushes everything he touches. It’s no contest.
The lyrical perspective of Run the Jewels is what I could call ‘third person, meta-music’. “Meta” is the term used when something is about itself; for example, “meta-data” would be data about data; “meta-education” would be education about education. So what you find on this album is a lot of music about music— two MCs talking about what rap is, what rap isn’t, what rap ought to be, that sorta thing. The genius and benefit of rapping as a group in that context is that it takes the emphasis off the individual MCs and puts it on the collective. Once you take “self” out of the picture, it opens the door for more broad and comprehensive topics— like how we’re gonna keep the Hip Hop scene from f#cking itself up. It allows the perception to change from that of being “another angry brotha on the mic”— which, sadly, is how some people saw Killer Mike’s last album— to “a dissenting opinion”. In short, the idea becomes important instead of the name or names speaking it. And speaking of ideas, there’s a LOT of ideas on this album, not just pertaining to Hip Hop, but to family, religion, education, politics… all the stuff that we’ve been sufficiently made numb to so that we avoid them. Which is why there’s also violence, misogyny, sacrilege, and profanity galore. Because we love that now.
Real shit, I came for the jewels; I’m the killer of kings and fools/
I’m the reason the season for treason starts this evening; and this evening/
Odds ain’t even; people praying to the gods but the gods ain’t even listening/
Don’t matter if your Muslim, Hebrew, Christian, when death run in the distance/
There will be no “Mercy me’s”; there will be no reprieve for the thieves/
There will be no respect for thrones; no master, master these bones/
Your idols all of my rivals; I rival all of your idols/
I stand on towers like Eiffel, I rifle down all your idols/
A Killer Mike sample. …I shoulda picked something more appropriate, that was pretty tame. SIKE!! I KNOW ya’ll see that “throne” reference, right!! Mike’s not f#cking around: even Carta and Yeezus can get it!! That’s the kinda abandon you gotta expect all throughout this project.
Check out some of the negative feedback I’m hearing for each project (I call these ‘cheap shots’)
For Summer Knights, I’ve heard some old heads who call themselves Hip Hop aficionado’s say things like, “95 til Infinity? He obviously bit 93 til Infinity from Souls of Mischief! ‘Drive slow homie’? He bit Kanye! That Sweet Dreams beat samples Doin It by LL Cool J!” …I’m all for constructive criticism, but I know hate when I hear it. This criticism is the equivalent of saying Wiz Khalifa bit a bumblebee because he made a song called Black and Yellow. It’s not biting for an MC to absorb the elements of his natural environment into his music. ESPECIALLY in the case of ‘95 to Inifinity, which is WORLD’S AWAY from ‘93 to Infinity. He borrowed two words and invested the rest of the 4:27 going as far left field of that song as a human being could. And plus, the song doesn’t sample Doin It by LL Cool J; the “Go Brooklyn” sample is from Go Stetsa by Stetasonic. #STOPIT
For Run the Jewels I mainly hear, “It’s not radio-friendly.” …Your point? I could absolutely hear Killer Mike and El-P going Joe Pesci in response to that. “What? You think we’re here to entertain you? You think we’re here to cater to you? You think we’re here to just sound good in your trunk? We’ll show you how to rattle a trunk!! *pop pop pop* How you like your trunk now!” …Of course, I would hafta get a few shots in too. Like El-P says on Twin Hype Back:
Mike’s a villain, Nick Hooks chillin, we don’t have a need to know your feelings/
We don’t believe in thee same shit anyway; Run the Jewels is not for your children/
…In case you no speak El-P, he was basically saying #STOPIT
Let’s kinda wrap things up with a few highlights:
Best lyricism: Summer Knights by far. Even with two killer MCs on his trail in the form of Run the Jewels, Joey goes to Saturn on ‘em for 17 tracks. I haven’t heard spits like this since I reviewed Honors English and Rapsody. And truthfully… he may have gone to Saturn on them too. His delivery is just too advanced.
Best production: Run the Jewels. This was a close call; you could make an argument for Summer Knights because of the clarity of the vocals on each track compared to the vocals on Run the Jewels, which were sometimes hard to make out, specifically on El-P’s verses. But the fact that the group and album are called Run the Jewels after an LL Cool J line and that the sound borrows heavily from that same era in Hip Hop… you gotta give the edge to that off creativity.
Best Song: …I can’t do it. I just can’t do it. I know Joey Bada$$ got lyrics for days. I know he’s got styles like hemorrhoids. But that Job Well Done… maaan when Killer Mike said, “Every word MURDERful, SURGical, PAINful, PURPOSEful/ And I’m taking left off your fuck list PERSONAL!!!/” — bird’s straight evacuated the trees in my neighborhood! I can’t lie, I got scared! Like, through the headphones I got scared! And these ain’t even Beats by Dre! Some cheap Sony MDR-ZX100’s!! It felt like he was in the room for a sec, and that’s a new experience for me! Then he follows up with a hell Lil Jon impression, which took me right back to dat dam summer of Never Scared. In my mind, for just a second, that song eclipsed everything on Summer Knights! Perhaps it would be more appropriate for me to say it’s my favorite song of the two projects rather than the best. But at the same time, it’s hard for me to ignore an experience like that.
Tipping Point: More features or less features? In 10 tracks, Run the Jewels only features one other rapper, and that’s the legendary Big Boi on the track Banana Clipper. Summer Knights on the other hand features a lot of other cats; out of 17 tracks, 7 features. And truthfully speaking… how often do you find another Joey Bada$$? So, for me personally, the features bring the project down; I don’t mean this disrespectfully, but again, where you gonna find another Joey Bada$$? It’s almost inevitable.
Best Album: Oooh… this is way harder than I thought it was gonna be! WAY harder! The only thing I’m sure about after hearing these albums is that Hip Hop is so far from dead that Nas might lose points for ever saying it in the first place. Let me ask ya’ll a question tho: is Hip Hop more about New York or new territory? Is it more about biography or battle cry? About the history it has been or the future it is to be? About the ascent of the individual or the cooperation of the collective? You gotta answer ALL these to pick a winner here…
…..AAHHH!!! I GOTTA GO WITH RUN THE JEWELS!!!! Joey Bada$$ is a true badass, but I opted to factor the artists out and just look at the projects: in 10 tracks, Killer Mike and El-P do some OUTSTANDING work with only ONE feature. The uniformity of the production style and subject matter allowed them to focus in and drop a project with excellent chemistry. And the project is so daring; I don’t think there’s any sensitive topic that Run the Jewels neglected to utterly desecrate on this project. Running that much mouth in only 10 tracks! And keep in mind this is their FIRST project as a group; if they kick it up a notch on the next project, there will be fatalities.
…That’s my opinion; can’t start off a #VS. review series with a draw, now can we? Agree or disagree, leave a comment and speak your mind. Shout to my homie Twan for that link, you made this possible.