RUN THE JEWELS 3 by Run the Jewels
Genre: Hardcore Hip Hop
Favorite tracks: “Hey Kids (Bumaye) (featuring Danny Brown),” “Thursday In the Danger Room (featuring Kamasi Washington),” “A Report to the Shareholders / Kill Your Masters”
Probably the most truthful moment on RUN THE JEWELS 3 comes on “Legend Has It,” when Killer Mike declares “RT&J, we the new PB&J.” This is an apt metaphor on multiple levels. Killer Mike delivers such a smooth and protein-rich product, it’s easy to want to take it in every single day. On the other hand, you have the sickly sweet jelly of El-P’s goofy rhymes and the consistent bread of his production. There’s a comfort and familiarity to RTJ3, but the threat of this dynamic duo is that too often they seem to make up a lot of fans’ entire rap diet. What’s more, with RTJ3, it’s proven that a sandwich just doesn’t taste as satisfying after two years of being served.
It’s a difficult distinction to parse, because in almost every way, RTJ3 is the group’s most fully realized album, and the most technically perfect execution of their style and sound to date. That being said, there’s also something strangely safe to the album; it doesn’t feel as gripping or innovative as their first release in 2014 or their 2015 follow up. Killer Mike is inarguably one of the best MCs spitting today; his rhymes are incredibly inventive and his delivery is the sonic equivalent of C-4 blast. (Kendrick Lamar didn’t shout him out on “Hood Politics” for nothing.) El-P, on the other hand, is inarguably an innovative producer, but is severely limited as a presence on the mic. Run the Jewels proved to be great for the Brooklyn MC for honing in his word count and making his rhymes more precise, reeling him in from his days as an underground abstract rapper who could only ever appeal to a very niche audience. On this release, however, it’s difficult not to feel like he’s holding Mike back, and may always have been.
Compare any of the back-to-back verses on this album and try to tell me that Mike doesn’t absolutely obliterate El-P. Let’s ignore the socially conscious tracks that pepper the latter half of this album for a moment (we’ll get to those soon enough). Let’s just look at how the two stack up on a track where they’re both just playing, bragging, and talking shit, such as on “Everybody Stay Calm.” I don’t always like to pick apart lyrics, but here I think it’s important. Mike’s verse goes like this:
“Big, big, big black fellow with a four-fifth in the back, backpack fella
I, I rumble don’t stumble young fellow
Got a stinger in the ’69 bumblebee yellow
I mean, I mean stunner, big titty bank teller had my wife here with her so a hater can’t tell her
Presidential suite, got a fuck boy jealous
I’m the Nelson Mandela of Atlanta dope sellers”
Look at how he uses repetition of words and phrases to play with the rhythms of each line; look at how he packs multiple rhyme schemes within each line; look at how he brags about having a ’69 Camaro and also uses a veiled euphemism. It’s not an outstanding, perfect verse, not a highlight from his career, but it definitely shows a confident lyricist who knows his craft. Now look at El-P’s bars that follow it up:
“I, I’m a goddamn savage
Eat with no hands I don’t even use napkins
Mark says number one bastard, show up in jorts with a hatchet laughing”
The best way El-P can demonstrate how savage he is is by bragging about not using napkins? Why is he talking about using a hatchet? Is he a closet juggalo? If it weren’t for El’s confident delivery and his hard-hitting production, we would all be able to see this for what it is — a Macklemore verse. I picked this example fairly randomly; I guarantee if you really look at any two verses on this record, El-P is a lyrical dwarf next to Mike’s giant.
That’s what we’ve generally enjoyed about RTJ in the past, the goofiness of El-P balancing out the overwhelming power of Killer Mike. I can understand how not everyone loves getting yelled at about Reganomics for an entire album (R.A.P. MUSIC is still Mike’s best work, though). Mike has, in a lot of ways, always been at his most broadly appealing when he isn’t the only voice on a track (see his excellent OutKast features), but he’s at his apex when he’s paired with someone who can also truly hold their own against him, not a chihuahua who nips at his heels. It’s why I couldn’t be satisfied with RTJ3; the schtick and the fun has run its course, and personally, I’d like to hear Mike get back to his more political predilections.
Because when Mike is focused on his political aspirations, he’s a powerful, necessary force. The way he brings together a consistent philosophical and political point of view is almost unrivaled in modern rap, and his activism is a reflection of that. His support of Bernie Sanders brought an exciting edge to the Democratic Socialist’s presidential bid, and his understanding of the real dangers of this country’s current political climate is insightful. On “2100” Mike states, “How long before the hate that we hold/Lead us to another Holocaust?/Are we so deep in it that we can’t end it?/Stop, hold, ever call it off/It’s too clear, nuclear’s too near/And the holders of the molotov/Say that ‘revolution’s right here, right now’/And they ain’t callin’ off.” It’s an interesting take to have after such a volatile year; it shows how reflective, introspective, and adaptive Mike can be. He recognizes that the populist anger that Sanders’s supporters tapped into ultimately fed from the same place that Trump supporters came from. It’s a level of nuance rap doesn’t often reach, and the album would have been better if it could have dwelled in these types of spaces more often.
Even with all my complaints, this still isn’t a bad album, just a thoroughly underwhelming one. Kamasi Washington, Zack de la Rocha, and Danny Brown all put their skills to perfectly good use here, and El-P’s production is exactly as good as it’s always been, with his hooks worming their way into your ears hours after listening. But there’s equally nothing exciting and innovative to point to here. Personally, I hope the new year brings another Killer Mike solo project, but collectively, I hope we can agree that it’s time to expand our palates beyond simple PB&Js.
Verdict: Do Not Recommend