Run The Jewels are the hip-hop heroes the world deserves, but until recently have never been the ones it has needed. After a turbulent year defined by worldwide political upheaval, the need for their unique blend of blistering political ire (“went to war with the Devil and Shaytan / he wore a bad toupee and a spray tan”) and self-aware, humorous braggadocio (“my dick got a Michelin star”) seems more pressing than ever before. It’s a good thing, then, that RTJ3, the third instalment in the trilogy that has taken the underground hip-hop world by storm, arrived as a surprise gift on December 25th. A Christmas Fucking Miracle, if you will. And here’s the kicker: it might just be the most impressive of the three.
Run The Jewels’ formula is a curious one. The duo does not display the think piece-baiting poetry of Kendrick Lamar, nor the rabid experimental instinct of Death Grips. Instead, they take the best bits of both and inject the unique personalities of both MCs to give their records a distinctly personal feel. Killer Mike’s bars boast peerless political rage that would make Chuck D blush, while El-P, who also handles production duties with aplomb, perfectly balances wrath with mirth, seamlessly leaping between lines like, “I not only bite, but I’m rabid” and “you don’t want to look into my big crystal balls / suck the future,” as only he can. The debut was essentially an exhibition of the the two’s talents; the production was sublime and the lyrics immaculate, as though picked through with a fine-toothed comb. Despite that, however, it was missing something crucial- vitality, passion, a capacity to impact the world. Its 2014 sequel provided exactly that and more; in a whirlwind of fiery lyrics and barnstorming beats, the duo took on the musical and political establishments, something mainstream hip-hop seemed unwilling to do. So here we are, two years later, and, for obvious reasons, there’s more to protest than ever. And on that front, as well as many others, RTJ3 delivers in spades.
RTJ3 is the duo’s longest record at 14 tracks, and paradoxically it’s the first that feels completely filler-free; whereas tracks like Get It and All My Life buoyed down the previous two albums, here the record’s flow is fluid and untapped. El-P’s production is sharper than ever, channelling the galvanised, sample-based volatility of his exemplary single The Full Retard and progressing beyond the sometimes awkward genre-meshing present in RTJ2. Whereas songs like Close Your Eyes, brilliant as they were, sounded like instrumental accompaniments to a feeding frenzy, the instrumentals on RTJ3 are more restrained, more focused. Take opening track Down, for instance; anchored on a galloping beat and haunting backing vocals, it stands out from the two previous album openers, for where those tracks were written like WWE entrance themes, pugnacious and overdramatic, Down feels ominous but not obvious, a threatening whisper rather than a blaring alarm.
Singles Talk To Me and Legend Has It follow, the former skewering “All-Lives-Matter-ass white folk”, the latter playfully referencing The Lonely Island (“every new record’s my dick in a box”), backed by an instrumental that sounds like a glitched-out submarine sonar. The Danny Brown-featuring Hey Kids (Bumaye) is a highlight that features some quintessential El-P one-liners (“half-man imps”; “Berenstein timeline zips”) and a rollicking instrumental that suits Brown’s wiry, sinewy flow like a kindred spirit. It’s here that the record really hits its stride, as the sprightly Stay Gold segues into the fierce and menacing Don’t Get Captured and then into the exceptional Thieves! (Screamed The Ghost), a track built around an infectious dual-wield bass line, wavy synths and the quivering yelps of TV on the Radio frontman Tunde Adebimpe. Perfectly fusing the album’s aura of trepidation with a stomping beat straight out of RTJ2, it might be the best song on the record.
2100, a single released immediately after Trump’s election victory, is appropriately the record’s most overtly political track, with Mike declaring, “I refuse to kill another human being in the name of the government” over some luscious guitar noodling and crunchy synth patterns. Panther Like A Panther is frenetic rollercoaster rap that advertises the duo’s rhythmic skill better than any other on the record, while Thursday In The Danger Room uses jazz wizard Kamasi Washington’s talents to accentuate a melancholy atmosphere set by the track’s abnormally sentimental lyrics. Finally, sprawling closer A Report To The Shareholders boasts a better-late-than-never Zach de la Rocha feature in a kind of meditative throwback to Close Your Eyes, in much the same way that an older, wiser man looks back on his younger self with a mixture of pride and regret. It’s a fitting end to a revisionist album that amends its predecessors’ minor flaws whilst capitalising on their strengths.