Label: Mass Appeal

Put aside your grand, annual critique of the state of hip-hop: 2014 was a shitty year for the world in general. A year of police lynchings, a year of grand jury endorsement of both state violence and vigilante action against black Americans nationwide, even in liberal metropolitan bastions, though most notably in Ferguson, Mo., where the local police force rewarded officer Darren Wilson with early retirement for his early career achievement: the murder of an 18-year-old boy, Michael Brown Jr. A year of protests, explosions and fire, yet minimal light.

All that to say: If Run the Jewels was ever destined to confront the zeitgeist one-on-one, cowboy-style, at high noon, it had to be this miserable year. As a musical work of political protest, Run the Jewels 2 is inherently retro; the reactionaries who've long begged for a retreat to Public Enemy's heyday will find little fault with this tape. RTJ2's counterbalance, then, is in the production: post-punk guitars on "Jeopardy" and "Early," screwy synth ticks and vocal warps throughout. "Oh My Darling Don't Cry," a fit of cuckoo tweaking and violent premonition, is the sort of live show cut that gets you elbowed in the jaw and subsequently savoring the blood.

"My fist to your face is fucking Folgers," Mike raps on "Blockbuster Night Part 1," summarizing RTJ2's tone as efficiently as possible. Killer Mike is a mighty persona, yet he is rapping his best at his most vulnerable moment, on "Early," where he offers a stop-and-frisk anecdote from the front lines of "the fight for my soul": "Please don’t lock me up in front of my kids/And in front of my wife, man, I ain’t got a gun or a knife/You do this, and you ruin my life." Whereas the very first RTJ project, Killer Mike's R.A.P. Music, was black, bleak, and gothic, RTJ2 is horrorcore comedy bolstered by Mike's earnest confessions and El-P's invincible levity. "I do two things," El-P advertises, "I rap and fuck."

So behold: The year's grand intersection of turn-up and purpose, from two friends who've now mastered the art of friendship-on-wax. In stark white contrast, the cynical anonymity of Iggy Azalea, this year's breakout poprap superstar, has left many of us feeling like hip-hop has watered down its identity and muted its bite, at least so far as major label rap is concerned. Thank Killer Mike, El-P, and Mass Appeal, then, for mustering the nerve and wordplay to answer spite with spite, violence with violence. Be the change. Spark the fire. Burn this bitch down. —Justin Charity