Christmas came early this year for fans of hip-hop heroes Run the Jewels, who have released their third album early of its original January 2017 release date. Formed in 2013, Run the Jewels is made up of the smooth-rolling Atlanta rapper Killer Mike and strung-out futurist producer/rapper El-P, two 40-something underground hip-hop veterans with a fist wrapped around pop culture and a gun pointed at contemporary social issues. Their cohesiveness together was perfectly established as early as their self-titled debut, while Run the Jewels 2 (2014) was an explosive, blood-pumping assault against everyone around them, from politicians to poseur rappers. RTJ3 is Run the Jewels’ biggest album yet, taking the urgency of their verses and spitting it in laser-focused bursts.
RTJ have always been a yin yang in more ways than one: Killer Mike’s Southern, buttery rapping balances El-P’s bleak, rapid-fire style; Killer Mike is explicit with his political banter and his hope for the future, El-P hides similar political views behind pessimistic jokes and foul wordplay. What they share best is their swagger and sense of humor—pro wrestling and sci-fi puns are effortlessly woven with gangsta-rap bravado. It’s the formula that’s always worked for them, though there’s some notable tweaks this time. Throughout RTJ3 there are underlying themes of revolution, and the idea of “killing your masters”, a call-to-action that feels more calculated than the rebellious rage of RTJ2. El-P’s style is faster and more practiced than ever, but Killer Mike has moments of cold sobriety, and even somberness when relating to current politics, most notably in the opening track, “Down”. That’s not to say El-P doesn’t have his humanizing moments behind his lyrics. “Thursday in the Danger Room” has both rappers giving heartfelt eulogies and subsequent reflections on mortality.
There’s a heavier emphasis on hooks in this album, spacing out the usual tag-team rapping and allowing El-P to experiment in his hyper, dystopian production. Though, besides “2100” (the most melodic song they’ve ever released), hooks are subbed in strictly for gold-plated hype building, with plenty of well-deserved chants of “RTJ”. Don’t expect instrumental breaks though—this is still a dense, furious record. Like all of their albums thus far, each song is immediately grabbing with its intensity, while rewarding in the long run with its wordplay. While Killer Mike and El-P are powerful enough to carry each song themselves, there’re tastefully chosen features on many tracks. Current indie-rap icon Danny Brown pops off on “Hey Kids (Bumaye)”; saxophonist Kamasi Washington (who has Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly under his belt) blares on “Thursday in the Danger Room”; Rage Against the Machine’s Zach De La Rocha helps close the album out. Run The Jewels have built up credibility with artists new and old, big and small, yet they are never outshined.
Run The Jewels 3 is the most practiced, polished, and ambitious project from Run The Jewels yet, without the loss of their self-made swagger. It’s not as hard-hitting as RTJ2, but it still packs one hell of a punch. Killer Mike and El-P are as brazen as ever, but they’re unafraid of showing cracks of vulnerability in their metaphorical tour through hip-hop fame and social revolution. Combine it with their first two records, and it’s no stretch to say that Run The Jewels have just pulled off one of the greatest hip-hop album trilogies of all time.
Run The Jewels, “Legend Has It”: