Killer Mike and El-P had long built their sterling reputations in the hip-hop underground before they formed Run the Jewels in 2013. El-P was one of the most prominent figures in the New York underground in the late ’90s and early ’00s and Killer Mike was a critical figure in the growth of Atlanta hip-hop. However, their grouping was, for many, still a surprising success and yet when you hear them together, it seems so natural — non-conformists who are both technically gifted and independent to the core. The first two records highlighted their growth as a duo, with the first being experimental, defiant and bold, and the second being radical and revolutionary. Both enjoyed critical and commercial success, catapulting the pair into the spotlight in a way neither had truly enjoyed over the past 20 years.
Their third release is brimming with the sharp lyrical interplay and powerful production that has come to define their work, and yet the fundamental difference this time is that the “threat” that fuels much of their rhetoric has gotten a whole lot realer since the release of RTJ2. As a result, the record is fuelled with a tangible sense of frustration, alienation and rage, with a determination to challenge and ultimately defy the ruling elite they consider such a threat to wider society.
Everything opens with the EL-P’s (Jaime Meline) trademark jarring industrial drums and by the end of Killer Mike’s (Michael Render) first verse, it feels like it is time to ready oneself for a full-bodied assault, a radical call to arms, as he raps “one time for the freedom of speeches, two times for the right to hold heaters, just skip to the fifth, with the cops in the house.” This assault continues as the record moves seamlessly into “Talk to Me”, which is an early highlight, as Meline and Render mock President Trump, openly challenge the government and embrace conspiracy theories.
A dominant theme of the record is the rejection of the “masters” and a revolt against the system and this idea sees its first proper airing on “Hey Kids (Bumaye)”, a snarling collaboration with Danny Brown. His breathless, multisyllabic yelps are the perfect foil for EL-P’s bark and Mike’s growl. The fear and anxiety of what the future holds is palpable as Mike wonders “how long before the hate that we hold lead us to another Holocaust” on “2100” and bemoans the perceived bias of the mainstream media by offering, “the evening news givin’ yous views, telling you to pick your master for president, been behind the curtain seen the devil workin’.” Whilst driven by anger, the record is never overwhelmed by it and remains focussed, following a clear narrative arc and holding a greater sense of purpose — that of exposing and righting the wrongs.
Unusually for modern releases, the album grows stronger with each track and by the time we reach “Thieves” the album is in full flow, with Mike rhyming “No more moms and dads crying, no more arms in the air, we put firearms in the air, Molotov cocktails thrown in the air, CNN got dummy Don on the air, talking ’bout he smell that ganj in the air, Dummy don’t know and dummy don’t care.” It’s an attack on the CNN news reporter Don Lemon and more broadly, the reporting of the tragedies that have plagued American society. The spoken word outro from Martin Luther King’s “The Other America” speech is a chilling reminder that many of the same issues remain now as they did 50 years ago and it is so important and powerful that artists like Render and Meline, alongside Kendrick Lamar, J Cole and Common are continuing to give communities a voice.
Whilst political and social outrage drives much of the record, “Call Tickertron” is the duo putting their stake in the ground, bragging and mocking their way across a sci-fi beat that moves through tempos and drum patterns, their flows flexing to match with ease. RTJ3 is brimming with confidence, the duo bouncing off each other throughout, and it’s a testament to the renaissance period both artists are enjoying at this relatively late point in their careers. “Panther Like a Panther” celebrates this and their refusal to conform to mainstream demands whilst still enjoying such success. There are also some personal reflections as EL-P reflects on the happiness he has found in his relationship with comedian Emily Panic and Mike reflects on his past and the experiences that have informed his world views. This renders the duo more accessible than ever before and adds a much needed human aspect to their radical ideas. However, this is an album defined by its socio-political outlook and where so many politically charged records in recent times have been insular, reflective, apathetic or angry, few have issued a call to arms with such dynamism.
The production on the record continues the evolution seen in its predecessors, built on the same blueprint and as reliable as ever. Lead single “Talk to Me” packs a huge punch to shake car, home and festival systems alike and the first half of the record that follows is an almost-seamless production masterclass, which acts as the perfect companion for the lyrical rage and activism. It draws positive comparison with the radical Bomb Squad soundscapes of the late ’80s and early ’90s and as you would expect, the album is dominated by a futuristic stomp, industrial synths and heavy bass, much like “Close Your Eyes” or “Get It” from the first two records.
However, the punch of the drums is no longer the sole star of the show and the growth in sonic range seen on RTJ2 continues here, as BOOTS returns again on “2100” and the electric guitar lines accompanying his indie-infused vocal provides a nice contrast to the aggression of the rapping. “Oh Mama” is dominated by a squelching bassline and blues infused groove, “Panther Like A Panther” is a skittering, skeletal production and Kamasi Washington even adds his jazz infused saxophone to the mix. These guest appearances challenge Mike and EL-P to step outside their comfort zones and help add variety to the sound of the record.
Still, the two closing tracks, “Thursday in the Danger Room” and “A Report to the Shareholders / Kill Your Masters”, are the defining moments of the record. They fuse political rhetoric with stark honesty and a strong humanitarian outlook as EL-P reflects “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, How do you feel about yourself when you know that sometimes you had wished they were gone, not because you didn’t love them but because you felt too weak to be strong.” Mike matches him with lines such as “life is a journey, to live is to suffer, and I have been suffering through mine, but living’s a blessing so I ain’t no stressing… the streets was a jungle, I pray that you made it, I hope that you righted your wrongs.” The track is left to play out to Kamasi Washington’s sax in a surprisingly tender moment.
“A Report…”, in contrast, is the closing statement of the record. Part 1 is reflective as they criticise U.S. bombings of hospitals in the Middle East and reflect on the political change of the past year, before Part 2 implores fundamental change to society. EL-P reflects on the higher purpose both artists have found in the group, something neither arguably foresaw when they started, as he raps “Hey, not from the same part of town, but we both hear the sound coming, and it sounds like war, and it breaks our hearts.” However, in allowing Zach de la Rocha to close the record, it is like an acceptance that Render and Meline aren’t able to bring about such change on their own and they call on everyone to make a difference.
As the record comes to a close, we are left with something that feels almost predictable, and yet brilliantly so. Run The Jewels’s fine vein of form continues and this is their defining moment so far, a call to arms, to overthrow a perceived failing system and reassert the authority of the forgotten and neglected underclasses. How viable their politics actually are is a debate for another day, but as a hip-hop record in 2017, few will come close to creating such an enthralling and vital listen.