Thursday, September 14, 2023

CD Odyssey Disc 1675: Run the Jewels and Rifflandia Part 1

I was supposed to review a new Alestorm album on my next review but, in honour of the start of the NFL season I have instead called an audible!

That is because one of my house rules is if I see a band live in concert I can also review their new album at the same time. I had already reviewed this next band’s latest record and so I was forced to deep even deeper into my toolbox of NFL metaphors and…check it down to the running back.

In this case the running back is running the jewels. And the check-down was me reviewing an older (but previously unreviewed) album in my collection. So here is that review and below that my experience of the concert.

Disc 1675 is…Run the Jewels 2

Artist: Run the Jewels

Year of Release: 2014

What’s up with the Cover?  The traditional Run the Jewels hands. RTJ covers are all variations of this graphic, and here we have them as mummified hands on a field of red. When you have a graphic this iconic, you go with it.

How I Came To Know It: I This was my introduction to Run the Jewels, and I am embarrassed to say that almost 10 years later, I no longer remember how they came to my attention. It could have been a music review, but it also could have been a recommendation from a friend or even a server or someone I randomly met at a pub. I take music advice anywhere I get it and chances are when someone takes the time to recommend a band to me, I check them out.

However it happened, I’m glad it did, because Run the Jewels has become one of my all-time favourite hip hop artists.

How It Stacks Up: I have four Run the Jewels albums and I like them all but Run the Jewels 2 is the Crown jewel – best of them all.

Rating: 5 stars

Discovering Run the Jewels in 2014 had me a year late to the party but felt like a revelation all the same. I had never heard rap like this before, so visceral and so powerful, and yet so connected to the classic masters of the genre it felt like it had existed for decades.

Run the Jewels is comprised of New Yorker El-P and Atlanta native Killer Mike. They both have successful solo careers that are worth your time exploring, but when they come together as RTJ something magical happens.

“Run the Jewels 2” (or “RTJ2”) is a furious assault of bass and beat from the opening notes. The beats don’t feel particularly complicated but the way they put it all together creates an energy the rolls and rolls and rolls, growing intensity with every bar that passes. There is no respite for your ears, but the undercurrent is so funky you don’t want respite. You just want to turn it up.

Lyrically, the rhymes of both El-P and Killer Mike are at the highest level. I’m talking Eminem/Rakim level shit. There are so many examples it is hard to pick but here’s a couple sections from “Blockbuster Night, Part 1”:

“No hocus-pocus, you simple suckers been served a notice
Top of the morning, my fist to your face is f**king Folgers”

That line is so cool I once built an entire playlist around drinking coffee, just so I could feature this song. Later we get this gem:

“The gates of hell are pugnaciously pacin', waitin'
I give a f**k if I'm late, tell Satan "be patient"”

As fun as that stuff is to read, when vocalized by these two masters the mic leaps to life. The only thing that could have competed with the electric energy of the beats are the voices of El-P and Killer Mike, and they are more than up for the challenge.

In many ways this record is a throwback, full of vicious braggadocio-filled raps about how great the duo are on the mic, their sexual prowess, or often both. Yet underneath this obviousness there are clever rhymes, often with political messages inserted sideways, even slightly awkwardly, so you don’t miss hearing it. At other times they add humour and playfulness – just enough to give your heart a smile before they launch into a few more bars of relentless attack.

What I’m saying is, this record is dope. Go buy it.

Best tracks: all tracks

The Concert: Rifflandia’s Electric Avenue – Victoria, BC, September 9, 2023

As I write this, I’m in the middle of a weeklong festival in Victoria that is Rifflandia. This is my first time attending Rifflandia, which tends to feature more hip hop and dance music than I usually like. I was drawn like a flame to see Run the Jewels, however, so around 7 p.m. last Saturday (having skipped “Paris Hilton as DJ” night) Sheila and I headed into the unknown.

Before I get to Run the Jewels, let’s get a feel of what came before.

Blu deTiger

Our first experience was Blu deTiger, who is a DJ who also plays live bass guitar licks and solos that she then samples and loops back into her set. I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about this, but it ended up being great. Very funky danceable and the combo effect of live and tape worked well. If anything, I’d have liked more bass soloing, even though I recognize bass solos must always be used sparingly, lest the universe itself crack like an egg.

Teriyaki Hut

This was not a band, it was what Sheila and I had for dinner. It was very tasty and also served as a handy place to return if we got separated. “Meet me at the teriyaki hut!


Our stomachs happily filled with teriyaki, we gave Montreal DJs Chromeo a chance. I wish that I had not done so. Chromeo was a hot mess. It felt like they were piling too many different competing sounds into one tune, and then having the arrogance to double down and assume it would work itself out. Readers, it did not.

Chromeo’s failure to impress quickly led us to abandon them in favour of a walkabout of discovery to the other stages.

The Dome and Base 2

The Dome was a partially covered geodesic dome with a laser light show located in the darkest part of the festival grounds. Beside the dome there was a chill out zone with couches.

The vibe of the dome was cool, but the music did not appeal and we quickly found ourselves once again exploring, this time to a third stage called “Base 2”. Huh. Maybe it was the second stage…that would make sense.

Jungle Bobby

When we arrived at Base 2 I was starting to feel the swell of my natural extrovert, and was pleased to discover multiple friends there ready to scratch my itch.

Also there was a band called “Jungle Bobby”. Apart from their ill-considered call of “y’all like Pitbull?” (no, Jungle Bobby, I do not), they was a lot of fun. Simple songs with groovy beats and party lyrics. They even had fly girls dancing it up on stage.

XL the Band

After Jungle Bobby we lingered at Base 2 and were soon treated to a very strange band indeed. XL the Band felt like a bunch of music students experimenting after class. They had an MC, a woman vocalist/flautist, a trumpet and a trombone. Hard to describe what they did – a mix of R&B, jazz, funk and pop. It reminded me a lot of Bourbon Tabernacle Choir, a band I followed in the early nineties.

Anyway, it was oddly compelling, and the trombone player (feature artist Nick La Riviere) was their secret weapon. This dude can wail on the trombone, and his solos (yes, trombone solos) were amazing. Would I buy XL the Band’s record and listen at home? Probably not, but they were a hell of a good time live.

Run the Jewels

With Chromeo safely removed, we returned to the main stage and took in Run the Jewels. RTJ hit the stage like a thunderbolt, immediately held the audience in the palm of their stylized hand logo and never let go.

The sound was excellent. You could pick out every word, and many in the audience were clearly hard-core fans, able to sing along and hit catch phrases correctly and in time.

There were a few musical tourists in the audience for sure. One pair came in during RTJ’s most recently famous song, did a quick spin on their phone to prove they’d been there while it played, and promptly wandered away. Um…lame.

However, for the most part the crowd was amazing and felt like a third member of the band. Neon floated about, strange post-apocalyptic standards bounced around in the sea of people, and there were even a couple of light sabers. If there were people who didn’t like each other, I never noticed, and not a single person lost their arm.

Droids were welcome in the cantina, as evidenced by a drone show in the sky above the stadium. We’d been told this would be amazing, and while it was a technological marvel, it didn’t do it for me.

What did it for me was RTJ, who were on point the whole night. Dropping best song after best song. When it was over I felt like I’d heard absolutely all the hits, and every deep cut was one of my favourites as well.

In short, it was a killer show, and if you get a chance, you should see them.

Here's a parting shot of me in front of one of the art installations doing my best Dwight Yoakam.

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