Published Dec 29, 2016If "bloody," "urgent," "enraged" and "heartening" were enough description to sum up El-P and Killer Mike's latest Run the Jewels album, this review could end here. But they aren't; this late 2016 LP, along with the duo's various collaborative tracks with several DJs and rappers all year, have officially placed RTJ high on the shelf of the "hard to describe" category.
Run the Jewels 3 is a rap armoury for hard times, a hip-hop bullhorn that afflicts the comfortable and comforts the afflicted. The two Jewel Runners in Chief have encoded tracks titles — "Stay Gold," "Don't Get Captured" and "Everybody Stay Calm" — to be mantras, while most of their trap bangers describe the faceless, disembowelled fools that got in their way.
That's business as usual for the duo: weapons hot, all systems go. But RTJ3 also shows two artists, brothers-in-arms, hitting career peaks. Warped strings, moaning reverb and heart-stopping bass (all soaked in triple-digit BPMs) turn every track into volatile, danceable firestorms. El-P's bars make listeners blush, his insults coming faster than E. Honda's Hundred Hand Slap. "Fuck with us you fuck with the truth / We speak openly," he spits about evildoers trying to fall asleep —instead of sheep, they count kids to be buried.
But Jamie "El-P" Meline, who "drinks like a Vulcan losing all faith in the logical," is also fiercely vulnerable. He revisits the dizzying pain of a friend's death on "Thursday in the Danger Room," a track featuring Kamasi Washington's slow-burning sax, and sings to calm his mother's fears on "Oh Mama."
Michael "Killer Mike" Render, a prophet of belligerence, has never held power as something worth attaining — he's only ever eviscerated it. His devil wears "a bad toupee and a spray tan," and he rounds up billionaires of all stripes into the same firing line. But he also nods respectfully to the pacifism of Martin Luther King, who's sampled on "Thieves! (Screamed the Ghost)," featuring an ethereal Tunde Adebimpe (of TV on the Radio) on the bridge. RTJ have loudly picked up the cry that the civil rights activist delivered, that, "…in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard."
The buoyant "2100" places hope in the boxing ring with doom. Here, El is ready to risk everything to protect what he loves ("Look into my eyes / I am standing at your side for the fight / mind over might") and Mikey gives away all his riches ("Gettin' more ain't what's more / Only thing more is the love").
This ability to describe murder most foul alongside moments of tenderness calls to the traditions of Gonzo journalism. Yet, while mind-bending substances, violence and insanity are one thing, romanticism and a great love of literature are prominent throughout the LP.
The final song, "A Report to the Shareholders : Kill Your Masters," caps off not just a 14-track album but half a decade of swagger and friendship, a group that started on a whim but turned into a life-changing experiment for both members. The second half of this track pulls out a crazed beat reminiscent of the wicked "Sea Legs" from their debut album, and features a verse from the always-epic Zack de la Rocha, whose presence on Run the Jewels 2 was essential.
RTJ3 finds the two 41-year-old rappers grinning while they flip off an ageist industry. Their brand has graced Marvel comic books and the playable characters of new first-person shooters. They see no end to the struggle in sight, so there's no reason to lay down firearms, even as they are surely taking over the world. If only that could sum up what's at work here. (Independent)