Run The Jewels are a two man rap group, consisting of the alternative hip-hop pioneer, El-P (rapper/producer), and critically acclaimed Dungeon Family affiliate, Killer Mike (rapper). Despite only being introduced in 2011, they have gone from strength to strength in a relatively short space of time.
In 2012, El-P produced Killer Mike’s album, R.A.P. Music, in its entirety. By 2013, they had formed their group and released their first album, the self-titled Run The Jewels. In 2014, they released the even more revered Run The Jewels 2, and followed it up with the RTJ2 world tour. Their third record, Run The Jewels 3, was released as a free download on Christmas day.
Their longest album by a good 13 minutes (clocking in at just under 52 minutes), Run The Jewels 3 utilises its extra length to pause for moments of reflection. This album is perhaps the most meticulously written of their releases thus far.
The pair reveal their deepest thoughts and feelings in ways previously unheard, weaving a winding fabric of anger and introspection. In between many of the usual (fantastic) braggadocio bars and insightful political critiques that we have come to expect from Mike and El, we meet the real guys beneath the now iconic logo.
On Killer Mike’s 2012 album, R.A.P. Music, he introduces the song, “JoJo’s Chillin”, by announcing, “This album was created entirely by, Jaime and Mike”. On this release, we get to meet Jaime and Mike. Not just two men with astoundingly clever and funny lyricism, but instead, two normal guys who doubt themselves, who question their own behaviour, who have flaws and sometimes feel inadequate to those around them.
They continue to provide their excellent commentary, while at the same time dismantling their iconic status amongst their fans by displaying humanity.
By the end of Run The Jewels 3, instead of simply being in awe of their talent, you feel as though they have allowed you to see through the veil of their fame and notoriety, and have welcomed you into their world as a friend. It’s not a departure from their previous sound completely, but that’s what makes it work so well.
They don’t have to write an experimental album to avoid sounding repetitive (yet); they are grounded enough to be able to demonstrate their growth as human beings in their music. There are moments where the album sounds almost too familiar, but those moments are rare, and the overwhelming majority of these songs show that they haven’t reached their artistic wall as a group.
Now, when we say, “This is not a departure from their previous sound completely”, it’s important to bear in mind the sheer scope of sounds El-P has used whilst working as one half of Run The Jewels. They start the album off with the introspective “Down” (featuring Joi): a song that defies expectations of this record by not being a wall of guttural basslines and grinding synths, ready to make ears bleed and chests pound (that comes next).
On their previous albums, Mike and El have introduced themselves through the most in-your-face ways possible, immediately establishing their main sounds. On this album, the opening song slowly fades in to Killer Mike pleading, “I hope (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”.
The follow-up is three minutes of surprisingly uplifting chord progressions and soul-bearing lyricism from the pair. What is continually apparent with each release is how successfully they connect El-P’s emotive beats with the tone of their lyrics. The record proceeds to spend the next six songs hammering home that while they may be showing increased self-awareness, they certainly haven’t changed who they are at the core.
“Talk To Me” is the song you expected the intro track to be. As usual, the transition between tracks is flawless. As “Down” ends where “Talk To Me” begins, we hear the signature synths El has become famous for, slowly rising to a crescendo as Killer Mike enters, and the song drops into a typical RTJ screwface-inducing beat.
This sound continues on, as “Legend Has It” gives the fans what they want: killer 808s, stabbing guitars and an absolutely hell-bent bell synth breakdown.
El raps, “Copping of uppers and downers get done/I’m in a rush to be numb”, demonstrating that despite the growth, they can still melt faces with their vivid lyrics and shocking beats. The sample of a crowd chanting “RTJ” is a fantastic touch to a densely packed song on a record full of densely packed songs.
On “Call Ticketron”, El begins to take us down the rabbit-hole with his production. The riser synth at the centre of the beat sounds like an alarm out of a sci-fi movie, while the “Live At The Garden” sample reveals his ability to craft something compelling out of the completely arbitrary.
“Hey Kids (Bumaye)” while not lacking ideas (the metallic sounding bass on the songs post-hook refrain is out of this world), feels somewhat plodding along until Danny Brown enters, making us question why he has never been on a Run The Jewels record until now.
“Stay Gold” will certainly go down well at festivals for its chanting hook, while “Don’t Get Captured” follows the RTJ blueprint – a prowling beat and darkly philosophical message (“Get a job, get a house, get a coffin”). The production in this short passage of the album is as calculated as you would expect from El, but does sometimes feel a little too familiar. The lyrics, however, remain as urgent and as pressing as ever.
“On Thieves! (Screamed The Ghost)”, El-P appears to have looked back to his past Def-Jux era work to create a beat that slowly creeps into an alluring refrain by the songs feature, Tunde Adebimpe. “2100” features a stirring hook from frequent Run The Jewels collaborator, Boots, and a moog synth driven beat that progresses the albums mood from rage to redemption.
El continues to show he can turn somewhat aggressive and brutal sounds into beautiful melodies and chord progressions, whilst Mike demonstrates his age and experience with stark imagery (“Seen a devil give a sermon in a church, seen an angel dancing in the club”).
“Panther Like A Panther” is the album’s highlight, with a frantic timpani percussion leading the charge into a pounding drum break verse, another throwback to the old days for El-P.
Both guys shred through the beat with contentious lyrics about organised religion and sex, demonstrating a nuanced intelligence and humour; a mix very few rappers are capable of. “I’m a pervert, a poet/I ain’t a saint, and I know it”, is a proud confession from Killer Mike, summarising not only the song, but the tone of the entire project.
“Everybody Stay Calm” once again scales back the intensity of the production as Killer Mike ups the ante steadily through each track, with his bars becoming increasingly outlandish and intricate. On “Oh Mama”, Mike reaches his apex with a hilariously crude fictional exchange between himself and his mother about his over the top cursing.
El-P utilises another squelchy moog bass, by this point removing any feeling of this sounding too close their previous work. In a clever switch in tone towards the end, the beat becomes more disheartening, causing the lyrics – “My mama says that I’m not living right, I said I’m trying mama” – to take on a different, much darker and hopeless meaning.
“Thursday In The Danger Room” is the record’s most lucid moment, as both rappers each use full verse to tell a story, professing their thoughts on life, death and dealing with loss.
El-P discusses the loss of a friend and the feelings that come along with it, with a brutally honest and emotional couplet, “How do you feel ’bout yourself when you know that sometimes you had wished they were gone?/Not because you didn’t love ’em but just because you felt too weak to be strong”.
Mike tells the story of a family left devastated by the death of a father over a chain. He manages to match El’s raw honesty, by admitting he empathises with the shooter, as he understands what growing up in the streets can do to a person (“The streets was a jungle, I pray that you made it, I hope that you righted your wrongs”).
Kamasi Washington features on the song, with gentle saxophone placed in the beat and a short melancholic solo in the outro. It speaks volumes that such a talented musician would be invited onto the track and give such an understated performance.
The final track, “A Report To The Shareholders: Kill Your Masters”, is a fitting end to the album. El discusses his self-doubt, and Mike admits his own fears about his intense honesty. They explain that the group’s success was actually due to their lack of ambition, not in spite of it.
The second half of the beat switches back to grimy and aggressive as they reinforce their self-awareness doesn’t mean they have changed; it has in fact made them more determined. A surprise Zack de la Rocha verse sees out the album in style, as a final fan service that shows they are just as aware of their audience as they are of themselves.
Although with some moments of repetition, Run The Jewels 3 is a triumphant album that shows real growth from both members. Despite the tremendous work rate they have displayed over the past 5 years, it doesn’t appear they will be slowing down anytime soon, and will hopefully continue to captivate audiences for years to come.
Words by Shane Hendrick
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