What a weird time it must be for Run the Jewels. Currently holding the number one rap album spot with Run the Jewels 3, the firebrand duo made up of rapper Killer Mike and rapper/producer El-P should be riding a career-making high. A slew of sold-out tour stops like the one at Jannus Live on Tuesday should be a victory lap for these guys. But, when your brand is razor-sharp raps aimed at the jugular of systematic injustice, this is no time for contentedness.
That’s, at least, part of the reason 2,000-ish people would pack into Jannus to see these guys do what they do best — fun, ferocious and invigorating hip hop that bangs hard and brings hope in a time when many need it most.
Stepping out to a sea of outstretched hands as Queen’s “We Are the Champions” played over the system, Killer Mike and El got right to it with a proper run through RTJ3’s “Talk to Me”. This was a chest-rattling declaration of purpose—“We return from the depths of the badland/With a gun and a knife in our waistband/Went to war with the Devil and Shaitan/He wore a bad toupee and a spray tan,” Mike rapped with rhythmic precision, decked out in all black as he walked the stage like an alternative universe tent revival preacher.
Run the Jewels treat trading off rhymes like an art form and it makes for this shared dynamic you don’t get to see a lot in rap. Instead of the typical you-rap-16-bars-then-I-do thing, Mike and El bounce rhymes back and forth like a verbal tag team in a Pay-per-view cage match. Tracks like “Legend Has It” and “Oh My Darling Don’t Cry” were absolute neck-breakers made even more memorable by these guys looking like they were the other’s biggest fan when the other was rapping. It’s almost weird how effortlessly these guys complement each other not only their delivery but just their overall being.
Between songs, Mike and El seemed to share the same brain, each “yes, and”-ing each other as they took jabs at security for being totally uncool and taking weed (“Let ‘em smoke weed or we’ll sit this out like a protest), before getting serious and speaking to the power of us—how we’re the arbiters of change, how we’re all here for the same unifying reason, and how it all wouldn’t be so for all the intelligent, thoughtful women in our lives. These moments were brief but powerful in their simplicity.
Things never got too somber, though. It’s pretty much impossible when you’ve got a song like “Love Again” featuring unapologetically raunchy female MC Gangsta Boo. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the time I heard a sold-out crowd sing “dick in her mouth all day” and “clit in his mouth all day” all in glorious unison.
Speaking of Gansta Boo, she was easily the breakout hit of the night. Following an ok set by rapper Cuz, she dominated the second opening spot with an all-too-short set of Three Six Mafia-ish raps and one savage diss tracked aimed at a recent ex (“I’m on my Taylor Swift shit—you fuck me, I write about you.)
The Gaslamp Killer was another surprise. A fellow DJ disciple of Flying Lotus, this guy’s set was straight up weird in the best way possible. Hidden under a Reggie Watts-like fro/bread combo, he rifled through a scattershot set mixed with everything from Lil Wayne to Death Grips, original tracks and 8-bit versions of hits like T.I’s “What You Know” and Chamillionaire’s “Ridin Dirty”. Half the fun was just watching this guy and wondering what he’d do next—whether it was shredding his tiny air guitar like no one was watching or dropping bits of woke wisdom on the Middle East and how un-different we all are.
This is where I’ll wrap up and say, sure, these are trying times for many of us. The fear of this latest administration is very real. But, as cliché as it is, culture, art, and expression are permanent forces. They’ll always be there to move and uplift us. Sometimes all it takes is a show like this to remind you of it.