Run the Jewels - "RTJ3" Album Review
It is the most curious phenomenon. That feeling of anticipation one gets when (in)patiently waiting for something with fervent agitation. When one – or others – aggrandizes any work of art before it comes out, or decades after its first publication, one can’t help but give into the hype as well. It is such a curious thing because when this happens, more often than not, the initial feeling is that of disappointment. It happened this year with J. Cole’s 4 Your Eyez Only. Conversely, We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service was a fantastic album from top to bottom that matched and surpassed the colossal expectations of the final album from Hip-Hop pioneers, A Tribe Called Quest. This time around, Killer Mike and El-P release their third collective album, Run the Jewels 3, on Christmas three weeks ahead of its January 13th release date.
Expectations of this album are pretty high: Run the Jewels dropped two consecutive Album of the Year contenders in 2013 and 2014. In 2015, they released Meow the Jewels, a remix of Run the Jewels 2 with cat-inspired production, because why not? But before Run the Jewels, Killer Mike was a charismatic rapper from Atlanta who frequently collaborated with OutKast, even winning a Grammy Award with them. But, as time came to pass with continued label issues, Mike was in the middle of an underwhelming career. El-P’s name is an eminence in underground Rap with his unorthodox-at-the-time style and themes as well as his work with Company Flow, The Weathermen and producing acclaimed albums from Cannibal Ox and Aesop Rock. However, despite that and his own praised albums, including his debut LP, 2002’s Fantastic Damage, El-P’s fame never matched his acclaim.
And that’s the story of these two lyricists, and of many others with all the talent but never the right opportunity, never the well-timed luck. All of a sudden, lightning strikes when they’re brought together, and aided by El-P, Killer Mike forges the magnum opus of his solo career with 2012’s R.A.P. Music. El-P follows weeks later with the lauded Cancer for Cure. From there, Run the Jewels is formed and El-P and Killer Mike create two of the most hard-hitting, unadulterated, straight nasty albums of this decade. This doesn’t bring them mainstream success on the level of the current trinity of Rap, (Drake, Kendrick Lamar, and J. Cole), but it brings them the universal acclaim that only one of those three artists have managed.
Rap has always been a young man’s game, but it is cool to look at older artists giving their careers a second wind. In the Rap game, artists like 2 Chainz and Danny Brown have managed to shape ultra-successful careers in their mid-thirties and the same goes for El-P and Killer Mike who, in the midst of knocking 40’s door down, have been booked for the foremost festivals in the country since the release of RTJ1 and are at the forefront of Hip-Hop’s sociopolitical conversation. On top of that, they simply give you what, at its core, every Rap fan looks for: beats and bars.
That doesn’t encompass the magic of the Run the Jewels by a longshot, but it is immediately noticeable on the Trina assisted “Panther Like a Panther”, a southern flavored braggadocio cut where Mike and El are flowing like beer whilst bigging themselves up about just about anything, whether fact of fiction. Take El-P’s whimsical “I hold the door for old ladies, run into fires and save babies” line or Killer Mike’s revolutionary charged bars: “Run the Jewels'll arrive at arenas, bunch of bloodthirsty hyenas/To get revenge on the kingdoms that killed the dreams of the dreamers”. The duo’s synergy is undeniable on cuts like the back and forth bars barrage that is “Legend Has It”, where Mike proudly proclaims he and El Producto are the “new PB & J”. The bass-heavy banger, “Stay Gold”, has Mike and El go back and forth for the last four verses with gold related wordplay that hit with the denseness and accuracy of an Amanda Nunes right hand.
Run the Jewels carry over the anti-establishment theme of their first two albums onto RTJ3 with the synth-heavy “Hey Kids (Bumaye)” where Mike declares his “plans to rob/Any Rothschild living, Bill Gates and the ghost of Jobs” or on “Don’t Get Captured” where El-P raps in the perspective of a corrupt police officer “Is that blunt? Oh well, hell, so’s this boot/We live to hear you say ‘please don’t shoot’/A pure delight, c’mon, make my night/When I file reports what’s right is what I write”. The messages of Run the Jewels on “Don’t Get Captured” are especially effective with El-P’s eerie synth horns, giving the track his signature dystopian aura.
The most understated skill Run the Jewels possess is their ability to express introspection. That becomes the theme of “Down”, the opener of RTJ3. El and Mike look back at their lives before they met and created their supergroup. It’s a different opener from the previous two albums: “Run the Jewels” off of Run The Jewels was an invasion of bars and fast paced production, whereas “Jeopardy” from RTJ2 was a slower paced affirmation that RTJ1 was no fluke. “Thursday in the Danger Room”, the emotional apex of the record, is an ode to fallen friends. Here, there aren't too many complex rhyme schemes or flurries of internal rhymes; they keep it simple and straight to the point while still communicating the pain that is left with lost ones.
This theme of self-reflection continues on the album closer, “A Report to the Shareholders/Kill Your Masters”. The first part sees the brash, alpha cockiness of Killer Mike and El-P being replaced with self-doubt and uneasiness about the potential consequences of the anti-authority stance that they’ve always employed. But their tones metamorphose into ones more apropos of the RTJ mantra: defiance. And with that, enters the ferocious second part, with its rumbling synth lead, rapid snares, and menacing synth horn that welcomes the surprise guest verse from Zach de la Rocha. In here, de la Rocha sounds as vehement as always: he talks about his flow being “a burning wind, blowing to you coast and/Now in cages ‘cause we rode the waves of your explosions” and he sounds especially manic on the last bar of the album.
It’s the poignant finale to RTJ3, with Killer Mike’s assertion to “kill your masters”, perfectly illustrating Run the Jewels and their discography; RTJ1 was Mike and El affirming their place as a duo that should be noticed and recognized: it was their bold and unapologetic warning of their imminent takeover. RTJ2 was the coup d’état, the dark, loud, Madame Defarge-led bloodshed accompanied with the thrills and wacky rhetoric of an episode of Shameless. RTJ3 is a victory lap; it’s the album where Mike and El can look back because they’re here now. It’s a slightly tamer approach with a more refined sound. There’s not much that is glossy about El-P’s production here: It’s abrasive but smooth, eclectic yet familiar. In short, El-P has created some of the best sounds of his near twenty-five-year career.
If there are those that haven’t listened to Run the Jewels 3, then they should have listened to it days ago, along with the rest of their material. It has reached and blown away its high expectations. Killer Mike and El-P have settled in their reign as the top duo in Rap and a top act in music. With that said, the truly scary thing about Run the Jewels is that they are far from done.