Watching Run the Jewels’ evolution has been truly exhilarating. In three years and as many albums (not counting the feline remix smorgasbord Meow the Jewels), Killer Mike and El-P have accomplished more than some rappers do in their entire careers. What began as a modest collaboration on Mike’s 2012 record R.A.P. Music has developed into something truly special—with each release, the duo has grown more passionate, more politically-charged, more royally pissed-off. Their latest effort, the aptly-titled Run the Jewels 3—unleashed upon an unsuspecting world three weeks early last Christmas Eve—is their strongest yet. Mike and El are angrier than ever (with what’s happened in the past year, my God, do they ever have reason to be), and their message of righteous rage has never sounded more timely or urgent.
When listening to RTJ3, the first thing one notices is the record’s immaculate production quality. El-P’s beats have always been incredibly raucous and eccentric, but here he pulls out all the stops—rattling percussion; screeching, warped synths; soaring orchestral backdrops. The tracks bleed into one another seamlessly, resulting in a record that plays like a short film with a brilliant script and breathtaking cinematography. The pair maintain this action movie soundtrack intensity for 51 thrilling minutes, displaying their radical energy in brief and powerful outbursts.
The album opens with a portentous organ crescendo, followed by majestic cymbal rides over distorted, muffled guitars that recall Kanye West’s ‘10s work. With an intro like that, you’d better strap in and listen to what the fuck these guys have to say. Mike then proceeds to tear into knockout opener “Down”: “I hope, I hope with the highest of hopes/That I never have to go back to the trap and my days of dealing with dope.” He then exchanges verses with El about their respective past struggles—Mike’s as a former dope hustler, El’s as a down-and-out indie-rap darling whose fortunes turned after partnering with Mike. RTJ3 thus begins hopefully on a note of perseverance and defeat of adversity.
Despite this, as mentioned before, there’s plenty to be mad about. The fiery, brutal “Talk to Me” is the record’s most blatant indictment of the Orange One. Mike, who spent the last year and a half fervently campaigning for Bernie Sanders, places himself on the spiritual battleground of an America that doesn’t value his life—with a sampled paraphrasing of Ephesians thrown in for good measure. “Went to war with the devil and Shaytan,” he thunders; “He wore a bad toupee and a spray tan…My job is to fight for survival/In spite of these #AllLivesMatter-ass white folk.”
It doesn’t stop there—on “Hey Kids (Bumaye),” the group calls for an all-out revolution: “Say hello to the masters, on behalf of the classless masses/We showed up, ski masks, picks, and axes to murder asses/Lift up our glasses and watch your palaces burn to ashes/Fucking fascists, who the fuck are you to give fifty lashes?” The ever-impressive Danny Brown closes out the track with a frenzied loop-de-loop that threatens to outshine Mike and El themselves.
As the album continues, the hope expressed in “Down” is diminished by the realities of racial violence. El plays a corrupt Chicago cop on “Don’t Get Captured” – the title itself an empty warning from the media on how to avoid death at the hands of police (“Is that blunt? Well, hell, so’s this boot/We live to hear you say, ‘Please don’t shoot'”). On the devastating, string-and-piano-laden “Thieves!,” Mike speaks eloquently and bluntly on the ethical double standard between police brutality and subsequent riots among the black community. The track samples MLK as well as Rod Serling’s spoken prelude to “The Obsolete Man.” The message is clear: no riot starts in a vacuum, and people can only have so much taken from them before they retaliate against the takers. Mike’s frustration at the demise of Sanders and the rise of Trump is extremely palpable; by the time we reach frenetic closer “A Report to the Shareholders/Kill Your Masters,” we find him in tears as victims’ mothers are paraded onstage at the Democratic National Convention. The apocalyptic nightmare reaches its climax with the doomy, futuristic “2100,” with perennial collaborator Boots delivering a drama-saturated hook: “Save my swollen heart/Bring me home from the dark/Take me up, take me up, take me up.”
“Thursday in the Danger Room,” however, is where shit truly gets real. As saxophone god Kamasi Washington blares somewhere off in the distance, the pair grapple with the very concepts of life and death as El visits his dying friend and fellow MC Camu Tao (“Death’s a release but a much bigger beast is a living on limited time/Like how do you look in the eyes of a friend and not cry when you know that they’re dying?”) and Mike faces the impossible task of consoling a fallen comrade’s loved ones (“Trying to search for the words that will comfort her soul and her spirit and mind/I tell her that it’ll be fine/But deep down I know that I’m lying”). It’s one of the most affecting moments on an album with no shortage of high points; it provides remarkable insight into the psyches of these two brilliant musicians and forces the listener-as-human to confront mortality itself.
RTJ’s wordplay is in top form throughout the record, and as one might expect, they never mince words. When they’re not taking a stand against the world’s evils, they’re effectively and often hilariously hyping themselves up as a force to be reckoned with. They draw from a seemingly endless well of innovative insults and roast their foes to a smoldering crisp. The ferocious single “Legend Has It” buzzes with enormous electricity as Mike and El take turns firing venomous verbal barbs over a hard-thumping, menacing beat with skeletal percussion. The two set themselves up as bloodthirsty murderers, vicious foes who take delight in quite literally slaughtering their haters. Mike, in particular, sounds gleefully demented when spewing fireballs like, “We are the murderous pair/That went to jail and we murdered the murderers there/Then went to Hell and discovered the devil/Delivered some hurt and despair.” The climax, however, comes in the track’s final 45 seconds, when the two deliver threats and brags in rapid succession right up to the zero mark. Add that to the repetition of the band’s initials by a cheering crowd as a makeshift battle cry, and these guys have got intimidation down to a science. On the sophomoric “Stay Gold” (i.e., Pony Boy, Mike’s son), you can almost see the smirks streaked across their faces as they boast about their wealth and the women in their lives. With “Call Ticketron,” they add their 2015 gig opening for Jack White at Madison Square Garden to their rapidly-expanding calling card as El playfully confirms that the “last two pirates alive are still yarghin’”.
Run the Jewels 3 is rambunctious, terrifying, merciless, and heroic – a testament to the supreme talent and conviction of its creators. There’s a certain beauty to it as well – two very different men from incongruous backgrounds united in a noble quest to make the world just a little less shitty. We’re a long way from things getting better, but for now Mike and El are fighting tyranny with all they’ve got and aren’t about to quit anytime soon. “I told y’all suckers!” Mike yells early on in the record. “I told y’all on RTJ1, then I told you again on RTJ2, and you still ain’t believe me!” Maybe this time, we’ll pay attention. (9.2/10)