Capturing the energy in The Showbox SoDo is a difficult task. The venue’s high ceiling stretches for a great distance overhead, and without the proper performance, momentum can dissipate from front to back. Luckily, Run the Jewels are nothing if not seasoned performers. From El-P’s first project, Company Flow, to Killer Mike’s earliest Outkast features, the duo have copious experience working at the highest levels and collectively, they possess the sort of grizzled confidence only gained through years of industry survival.
Perhaps this is why their moniker is so fitting. After years spent knocking on fame’s front door, Run the Jewels represents the moment both El and Mike decided to simply go around the side, smash the windows in with nothing but vicious rhymes, grab the jewels of fortune and respect, and tip-toe out the back as the new Robin Hoods of rap. Now touring on their third successful album, the undead hands that rotted on their first album cover and healed on their second have become gold on their third, emblemizing the resurgence and new life the project has given each of their careers. Run the Jewels are now using that distinct restorative power to give audiences around the world a beacon of hope during the bleakest of times.
“El-P and Killer Mike hand picked all the artists you’ll hear tonight,” extolled producer The Gaslamp Killer. “There were no agents or managers or any of that bullshit. Just friends who’ve been doing this together for a long time.” At that moment fellow producer and opening act Nick Hook rushed back onto the stage to give The Gaslamp Killer a big bear hug in an act that summed up the group feeling between the Run the Jewels’ openers, Nick Hook, CUZ, Gangsta Boo, and The Gaslamp Killer.
The more the night went on, the more the opening sets started to feel less like an individual performance than a collective manifesto highlighted by each artists’ specific talents. Nick Hook laid the groundwork with urgent, crowd-hyping beats (even building one from scratch with a member from the audience). CUZ showcased a new generations’ perspective through gritty rhymes that proved once more why Atlanta is currently hip hop’s most important city. Gangsta Boo reminded the audience both literally and through her two decades long brilliant catalogue of songs that women still reign supreme (or in her words that “pussy is power.”) And Gaslamp Killer brought the whole presentation together with a blistering dj set that combined every genre in an inclusive and devastatingly fun combination of tunes. If Run the Jewels are hip hop’s Robin Hood, their openers were an updated version of the Merry Men (one that’s thankfully not all men and not so merry.) Each artist possessed enough talent to get the job done alone, but their combined efforts were all the more powerful for the groups’ sense of teamwork and comradery.
The Gaslamp Killer:
But if the openers indulged the audience’s hunger for no-holds-barred rhymes and clever but earth-shaking beats, they only increased the general appetite for Run the Jewels’ main course of hits. By the time the duo took the stage (to their usual tune of Queen’s “We Are the Champions”) the frenzied crowd had reached a fever pitch. Fortunately, the rappers wasted no time in uncorking that pressure with a stream of high-octane, industrial style bangers from their second and third albums, both of which tend to cover more serious political and sociological ground. The duo wasted no time in addressing police brutality with songs like “Early” and “Don’t Get Captured” and political corruption with “Lie, Cheat, Steal” and “Talk to Me” while still mixing in braggadocious love songs “Panther like a Panther” and “Love Again” to balance the mood.
With that combination of confidence and mirth in the face of harrowing subject matter, a Run the Jewels show can feel like an alternate universe where Killer Mike’s tireless campaigning actually pushed Bernie Sanders over the top for presidency. In this world, incarcerations for petty weed possession are down and jail time for big time banking fraud is up. In this world, love (in all its forms) is openly celebrated and repression—whether state or church sanctioned—is banished. And in the world, El and Mike can make an entire album out of nothing but cat sounds, call it Meow the Jewels, and donate all proceeds to victims of police brutality. But, alas, for the most part (at least Meow the Jewels is real), this is not our world—a fact for which the two performers are keenly aware. With their last album more somber and introspective than ever and their live show peppered with words of encouragement to a politically disenchanted audience, the tone has changed. Killer Mike and El-P are still the same lovable deviants they always were, but now when “We are the Champions” welcomes them to the stage, the words that resonate most aren’t Freddy Mercury’s declarations of victory, but the notes of resiliency as he belts “We’ll keep on fighting till the end.”
Run the Jewels: