RTJ has continued to rise to the occasion and deliver galvanizing political rap that is equal parts menace and message.
Late-career collaborations like Run the Jewels rarely last more than a single record, but both the chemistry of El-P and Killer Mike and the world’s conveniently-timed spiral into madness made RTJ not just timely, but essential over the last four years. Their third record, simply titled Run the Jewels 3, further expands the group’s punishing sound while remaining rooted in the unique alphabet that made them resonate in the first place.
A curious sequencing choice has RTJ 3 open with “Down,” a relatively mild-mannered origin story that plays like one of those HBO “Previously On” tags you fast-forward through to get to the actual show. It’s a perfectly adequate track, but it has a lack of urgency that clashes with the incendiary bulk of the album, especially considering that El-P does a better job of providing a mission statement and an RTJ history lesson on the record’s finale “A Report to the Shareholders / Kill Your Masters.”
The remaining 13 songs are an absolute onslaught from Mike and El, who have honed the kind of rapport we rarely see from a rapper-producer tandem this decade. El is a terrific rapper in his own right, an insanely creative and often hilarious lyricist (“I do push-ups nude on the edge of cliffs,” “I am the living swipe-right on the mic”), but his beats on this album are magnificent creations and perhaps his best work since he produced the entirety of Mike’s 2012 album R.A.P. Music, which can be viewed as the unofficial start of RTJ.
“Legend Has It” is a behemoth in half-time that moves with the destructive inevitability of Godzilla lurching towards the mainland; every downbeat is liable to cause property damage. It’s a perfect platform for the two MCs, who both rise to the challenge, with Mike particularly nailing the RTJ ethos (“We are the murderous pair/ That went to jail and we murdered the murderers there”).
Run the Jewels has never been big on hooks, which occasionally can bog down individual tracks or make them blur together. For the most part, though, on RTJ 3 the sparse choruses of songs like “Talk to Me” and “Hey Kids (Bumaye)” actually work well as an opportunity for the listener to catch their breath. The verses are just that packed with show-stopping bars.
“Call Ticketron” is an adrenaline-raising, meta masterpiece that features a twitchy beat and brilliant chopping of an automated ticket sales rep that recalls “Oh My Darling Don’t Cry” on RTJ 2. Mike and El-P’s habit of constantly using the group name typically toes the line between endearing and annoying, occasionally making you feel like you’re listening to a Run the Jewels Gangsta Grillz mixtape, but “Ticketron” utilizes the duo’s penchant for self-references as the fuel for an intoxicating track.
They’ve always had a knack for picking guests, and the artists who pop up on RTJ 3 are no exception. Danny Brown shows that he can also live in that nexus of Quentin Tarantino violence and political activism on “Hey Kids,” and Trina puts plenty of venom into the hook of “Panther Like a Panther.” And BOOTS knocks the “2100” chorus out of the park.
But Run the Jewels has always been about the shared mission of its members, a commitment to spurring revolution and violently rejecting oppression, bigotry and censorship, and the bond that mentality helped foster. As Mike puts it on “Talk to Me”: “My job is to fight for survival/ In spite of these All-Lives-Matter-ass white folks.” The album closer “A Report to the Shareholders” is one of their most powerful and direct songs ever. El-P’s beat is contemplative and cerebral, and both rappers drop a treasure trove of incredibly personal bars, peeling back the Run the Jewels exterior to reveal how the injustices that they see impact each of them as people.
El-P raps, “But I’m just afraid some days I might be wrong/ Maybe that’s why me and Mike get along/ Hey, not from the same part of town, but we both hear the same sound coming/ And it sounds like war/ And it breaks our hearts.” Mike offers up an incredibly personal snapshot of his own: “At the Dem Conven, my heart broke apart when I seen them march mommas in/ As I rap this verse right now, got tears flowing down my chocolate chin,” referring to the Mothers of the Movement who appeared at last summer’s Democratic National Convention.
With their shared beliefs and sonic chemistry, Mike and El-P hit the ground running, and RTJ has continued to rise to the occasion and deliver galvanizing political rap that is equal parts menace and message. RTJ 3 may be their finest work to date, which is good, because their “Garvey-mind, Tyson-punch” approach couldn’t have returned at a better time.