It’s a Christmas Miracle.
Originally slated for release on January 13th, El-P and Killer Mike decided to deliver their third LP on the 25th as a Christmas present to fans. Boasting polished, sedate production, tag-team delivery, and a refined message, Run The Jewels 3 is RTJ’s most cohesive release yet.
It’s clear from the gate that this album isn’t a re-hash of RTJ2. El-P and Mike are rebellious as ever, but there’s a reflective tone to opening track “Down” that separates it from the flex anthem that was “Jeopardy,” their previous LP’s starter. Reviewing the obstacles and mistakes the duo faced on their way up, the Joi-assisted hook and Mike’s invocations of deity in his verses set a mood that reflects the cooler palette of the album’s cover. RTJ has undoubtedly become a political act, and, given recent events, the stakes are higher. This album reflects that.
Of course, RTJ are still a rowdy pair, and the album quickly picks up speed. “Talk To Me” quickly accelerates into previously-released “Legend Has It,” and the album accelerates into attack mode. Built from from an eclectic mix of electric guitar, saxophone, synths, and 808 programming, the beat to this track has enough kick to satisfy trap fans but maintains the sci-fi flourishes of El-P’s production palette. This track also marks a shift from RTJ2: a change in delivery. Where El and Mike would spin a long verse each per track before, they’re now often trading off every eight bars. While this makes tracks more dynamic, it does hurt the group in the long run- Mike and El sometimes have difficulty stringing their shorts statements together, and tracks lose their narrative on multiple occasions throughout this album. While it isn’t a problem on the banger that is “Legend Has It,” it doesn’t help on later cuts when the pair try to deliver a message.
“Legend” is followed up by the Genius-described “bragfest” that is “Call Ticketron.” Referencing the now defunct Ticketron system of ticket-booking, the cut communicates the duo’s desire to play Madison Square Garden, flipping computer-speech vocal samples from a ticket-booking system into the beat as the pair exercise their braggadocio skills. While it’s high-energy as always, it’s strangely placed next to the anti-authoritarian “Hey Kids (Bumaye).” Both tracks are excellent in their own right, and “Hey Kids” features a solid verse from sharp-minded Detroit rapper Danny Brown- but placing the high-revenue capital fantasy of “Ticketron” next to the Rothschild-referencing, fight-the-power messages on “Bumaye” makes for some strange cognitive dissonance. It’s here the album flounders just a little. “Bumaye” follower “Stay Gold” plays like a toned-down version of “Love Again” off their previous release, and the rapid verse-switches on it don’t help it remain cohesive.
Despite these slight misfires, the tracks taking up the middle of the LP are excellent. “Don’t Get Captured” sees Mike describing the cycle of decline, crime, and gentrification in urban black neighborhoods, and El-P sums the Babbit-like fates of the middle class with a single line: “Get a job, get a house, get a coffin.” Here, Mike and El’s differing lives are a huge asset. They’re able to speak to both sides of rap-fan coin at the same time; Mike reaches out to the traditional urban audience of rap listeners, and El-P speaks to the middle-class fans who engross themselves in the slang and music of the trap. This becomes a talking point later on.
“Thieves! Screamed The Ghost” and previously released track “2100” (featuring previous collaborator BOOTS, once again on hook duty) are perhaps the biggest indicators of the sea change between RTJ2 and RTJ3. Whereas their last LP saw El-P inciting Crips, Bloods, and Rikers Island inmates to rebel, “Thieves” shows the pair simply describing the circumstances and events surrounding unrest. But most notably, on “2100” (a cut released immediately following Trump’s victory in the US Election), Mike symbolically gives up the gun with his simple declaration of “I don’t study war no more.” But he also poses an important question to the listener- “How long before the hate that we hold/ Lead us to another Holocaust?”
The next few track are a reprieve from the gravity of the album. “Panther Like A Panther (Miracle Mix)” is another banger, with a quick message slipped in- that Mike and El are aware that the increasingly political nature of their work has, to some degree, hurt their appeal. “We the grimy and gritty, made it the Grammy committees/ Got told that we spit it too vicious and would never see victory,” says Mike. “Everybody Stay Calm” is a complete misnomer of a title- the track is a classic RTJ bragfest. “Oh Mama” is another acknowledgment of the toll their dark tone takes, this one acting as an apology of sorts. It his, however, quite tongue-in-cheek, with El opening his verse by saying “notice me, senpai,” a strange and humorous nod to the internet’s fascination with Japanese culture.
Once “Oh Mama” resolves itself, the album takes its darkest (and arguably most affecting) turns yet. Following this is “Thursday In The Danger Room,” the biggest gut-wrencher on the album. “How do you look in the eyes of a friend and not cry when you realize they’re dying?” asks El-P as he delivers a narrative of losing close friends to illness. Followed by this is Mike’s vivid tale of watching a man’s daughter grow up fatherless after losing her parent to a senseless shooting. But rather than condemn the shooter, Mike offers forgiveness to him. “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth/ Will leave us all mumbling and blind,” he says as he opens his verse. Even more so than on “Don’t Get Captured, Mike and El’s differences allow them to form a more “whole” track than either one could do alone. Both stories are equally powerful, but their different sets of experiences allow for them to address varying themes- El the more universal and time-worn one of illness, and Mike the immediate and specific topic of street violence. The ying-and-yang nature of Run The Jewels as a duo comes together here, more than it does anywhere else on this album, perhaps in their whole discography. Despite their aligned interests and tastes, Mike and El are radically different people, and this is what makes their work together so compelling.
This difference is acknowledged early in album closer “A Report To The Shareholders/Kill The Masters,” with El-P acknowledging that he and Mike are “not from the same part of town, but we both hear the same sound coming/ And it sounds like war.” The first half of this double-header has RTJ recapping their experiences since coming to prominence as a duo. El recounts how he initially didn’t believe RTJ would be a hit, rather, a one-off that would be fun and bring some wealth to the pair. Instead, it evolved into the monster that it is today. Mike alternatively addresses the experiences he had working with Bernie Sanders during the 2016 election, and defends his criticism of Hillary Clinton. “Ooh, Mike said ‘uterus,’ they acting like Mike said ‘You a bitch.'” The second half, “Kill The Masters,” is an appropriate closer- a call to rebellion that features an assist from none other than Rage Against The Machine frontman Zack de la Rocha. Here, Mike and El combine their two favorite tendencies, lyrical flexing and political rhetoric, into one track, and it’s a fitting end.
All-in-all, Run The Jewels 3 isn’t El-P and Mike’s most potent cocktail of rebellion, but it’s their best mixed one. More sedate, better executed, and more mature than their previous releases, this album is a good argument that even men well into middle age can grow as artists and learn to better express themselves. The most surprising development here is El-P’s growth as a rapper. While he’s always been lethal on the mic, El Producto has relied on his skills as a beatmaker to carry his weight in the duo before. Not here. This release sees El-P not only producing on all the tracks of the album, but also going head-to-head with Mike on every one. Whether you’re a fan of the group or not, RTJ3 is not a release to be missed.