In an era when mainstream and underground rap are becoming ever more polarized, Run the Jewels is one of the few hip-hop acts that can legitimately claim to straddle the divide. The duo consists of rapper Killer Mike and rapper/producer El-P. The former got his start in the early 2000s as an OutKast affiliate (look for his verse on the Stankonia cut “Snappin’ and Trappin”) and has been releasing a steady stream of fiery, politically-charged Southern rap albums ever since. El-P’s career stretches back even further: a former member of the group Company Flow and fixture of the New York underground rap scene since the 1990s, his wordy, off-kilter delivery and dense, bulky production largely defined the sound of underground rap for the first few years he was active. They’ve collaborated in the past—El-P produced Mike’s 2012 album R.A.P. Music (which I highly recommend) in its entirety, as well as contributing a guest verse—but their albums under the Run the Jewels moniker are the first time they’ve worked together as a legitimate rap duo.
Both would likely have remained acclaimed niche figures in hip-hop if they’d never come together; in forming Run the Jewels, however, they’ve been able to find far more commercial (if not necessarily critical) success than they ever did separately. Mike finally has beats to match his vocal and lyrical aggression and El-P finally has a foil to keep his usually-obtuse lyrics grounded in reality. The end result is some of the most vicious, hard-hitting rap being made by anyone right now.
Run the Jewels has already released two albums, the first in 2013 and the second in 2014. Both displayed similar levels of intensity, but there was still a notable progression across them. If RTJ was a crushing cinder block to the face, RTJ2 was a baseball bat—hitting with equal force, but harder, leaner, and more focused.
RTJ3 dials back this trend a bit; while the album certainly has its share of hard-hitting beats, it’s also got some more toned-down, experimental production that makes the thing less of an unrelenting assault than its predecessors. Opener “Down” is perhaps the least aggressive song Killer Mike and El-P have ever put out; instead, it’s a three-minute slow-burn that makes the auditory battering-ram of “Talk to Me” that follows it all the more riveting. This song also establishes the general dynamic of the album, with Killer Mike’s slippery, hard flow forming a striking contrast to El-P’s gruffer, more clunky delivery. Both MCs acquit themselves well here, but it’s Mike who really shines; hopping effortlessly from one intricate rhyme scheme to another, he displays ineffable levels of confidence and technical ability without ever losing sight of the substance behind his lines.
The lyrics overall aren’t much of a change from past Run the Jewels projects: the over-the-top violence, colorful bragging, and impassioned calls for political change that characterized their first two albums are all still present here. Even so, RTJ3 is probably the most political album the pair have done together. Mike opens “Hey Kids (Bumaye)” with the lines “Say hello to the masters, on behalf of the classless masses” and promptly calls those same masters “f**king fascists”; El-P later attacks anyone “sitting high with a uniform, barking orders, demanding order”. To a certain extent it can seem escapist, but there are also legitimate calls for social reform buried in all the talk of violent uprising. The track “2100” in particular (released in the immediate aftermath of the Presidential election) ponders “how long before the hate we hold lead[s] us to another Holocaust?” before Mike eventually concludes that “you defeat the devil when you hold onto hope”.
It’s a newly sober view of the world from the duo, and one of the key reasons RTJ3 is my favorite of their three albums. No, it doesn’t possess the same head-on ferocity of its predecessors, but that’s more of a feature than a bug; the pure adrenaline of their first two releases was never going to be sustainable over the long term.
Besides, what it sacrifices in immediacy it more than makes up for in sheer skill. RTJ3 boasts a pair of all-time great MCs at the absolute peak of their abilities, displaying a newly empathetic social conscience even as they absolutely obliterate the competition in terms of energy and lyricism. Filled to the brim with righteous fury even as it acknowledges that things are likely going to get worse before they get better, Run the Jewels 3 is the perfect rap album for the frustrated, divided times we find ourselves living in.
“Talk to Me”
“A Report to the Shareholders / Kill Your Masters”
Score (out of 5.0)