Run The Jewels made a surprise return on Christmas Eve 2016 with RTJ3, the follow-up to 2015’s incendiary RTJ2. It’s the third album from two rap industry veterans El-P and Killer Mike who, after three decades in the game, now rank amongst the best duos in the history of the genre.
Both have acknowledged their surprise at their success after years in the rap wilderness. El-P came from indie rap roots with seminal NYC group Company Flow and his own label Def Jux, making a name for himself as a producer but never quite breaking through. Killer Mike was originally associated with southern hip-hop royalty Outkast, then fell from grace and has ground out a career ever since. He’s become known for fierce political activism and is respected for his skills on the mic by an MC no less than Kendrick Lamar.
RTJ3 is definitely a departure from previous albums. Songs flow into one another and the lyrical tone is darker than previous efforts. There are less isolated bangers and on first listen the album can feel underwhelming, though this certainly isn’t the case after a few listens. These songs flow into each other and the album feels like a more cohesive piece when compared to its predecessors.
If Killer Mike was the superior MC on the previous albums, then El-P comes into his own in lyrical terms on this effort, rattling off one-liner after one-liner, from “You’re going to need a bigger boat boys/you’re in trouble” on ‘Down’, to “You running out of ways to go fuck yourself/I will innovate” on ‘Oh Mama”. His production remains top notch, with heavy bass and dense synth pads underpinning each track, complementing the heavy lyrical subject matter .
Killer Mike, for his part, seems more downcast and more reflective, possibly due to his experiences on the campaign trail for Bernie Sanders. He opens album highlight ‘2100’ with “How long before the hate that we hold/Lead us to another Holocaust?” before addressing the potential of nuclear war in the near future. Heavy subject matter from a rap heavyweight.
It’s not all doom and gloom from Mike here though. His double time parts on ‘Call Ticketron’ and ‘Hey Kids (Bumaye)’ show his skill and make you laugh out loud, even if he’s still dealing with serious topics. The aforementioned tracks and ‘Stay Gold’ have parts that stick in your head and stay there. These come in the first half of the album, before the relatively meditative second half that features, among others, TV On The Radio’s Tunde Abimpe, Kamasi Washington and Zach De La Rocha of Rage Against The Machine fame. The latter turns in an uncredited verse on final track ‘A Report To The Shareholders/Kill Your Masters’ in what is one of the album’s highlights.
It’s not Run The Jewels’ most in your face album but it is as life-affirming as previous efforts and it provides a lyrical roadmap for dealing with the tough times that El-P and Killer Mike see ahead. It’ll be difficult but if these two best friends keep making music like this then we’ll always have something to look to.