It was once weird to think that a reformed Atlanta trap-rapper turned statesman and a New York City “backpack rap” icon would be one of the great duos in hip-hop history, but those days have long passed. More than five years after the group’s inception, Run the Jewels continues to release exceptional music, simultaneously functioning as the heirs to cornerstone hip-hop groups like EPMD and Public Enemy.
Brought together by a Cartoon Network executive of all people, Jaime “El-P” Meline and Michael “Killer Mike” Render first decided to work together in 2011, and their partnership has resulted in an almost absurd amount of magnificent music. The pair have managed to capture their audience’s passion like few hip-hop acts have in the 2010s. And they’ve built their following largely by providing their albums for free. The group’s eponymous debut album was released as a free digital download in June 2013. After its success, they followed up with Run the Jewels 2 in October 2014, which was met with even more critical acclaim.
It was after the release of their second album that the duo really began to capture the hearts and minds of its audience both on and off the stage. They were performing in St. Louis on the night of November 24, 2014, two hours after a local grand jury announced that no charges would be filed against police officer Darren Wilson in the death of Michael Brown. Killer Mike began their set with an impassioned and emotional speech praising the protesters and condemning the absence of justice. In 2015, Mike became a fervent supporter of Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, becoming one of its most outspoken surrogates. He was forced to dial back his media profile after making some controversial remarks about Hillary Clinton, which were possibly taken out of context. Somewhere in between, Run the Jewels had a show-stealing performance at Coachella 2015, toured the globe, and released the crowd-funded Meow the Jewels, a remixed version of Run the Jewels 2 with beats that incorporated samples of cats.
This strange journey led us to the night of December 24th, when a “Christmas Fucking Miracle” arrived in the form of the duo unveiling their third album, Run the Jewels 3, three weeks early. The LP is a strong entry into their discography, and proof positive that success and acclaim haven’t dulled their rage, but rather finely sharpened it.
With all the talk of how 2016 was the perfect shit-storm of a year, Run the Jewels 3 is any many ways an antidote. Born out of the noxious mix of toxicity and death that seemed to dominate our global culture, Mike and El emerge from a crucible of pain and despair, battle-tested and ready to kick ass and take names.
Run the Jewels 3 begins in earnest with “Down,” the group’s thesis statement for the project. Here the track slowly builds, with the gothic, haunting keys becoming progressively louder and more dramatic as Mike and El both rap about the importance of maintaining hope in a society determined to crush all positivity. Here El raps, “You muckin' with a G here, see and talk to me / Or maybe listen to the man that barely dodged his own lobotomy / Pop the tape in baby, we got shit we wrote for you / Came from feeling what a pure absence of hope can do/ Only to leap through flaming rings and break the nose of crews / Still in the wings will be the darlings, hope they've broken you.” The track’s chorus is handled by both Mike and his former Dungeon Family cohort, the singer Joi.
Given Killer Mike’s outspokenness and very public profile, El-P is often overlooked as a key component of the group. If nothing else, El-P’s production is integral to the group’s overall persona. The proto electro/rock strains of the beats are the engine that gives Run the Jewels its manic energy. And while his lyrics aren’t as complex and intricately conceptual as some of his solo work, he always seems to be having a helluva time, especially when rapping about causing mayhem.
Much like the pair’s previous albums, large chunks of Run the Jewels 3 may make the listeners want to beat an oppressor to death with a garbage can. On the album’s first single “Talk to Me,” over chaotic drums and piercing keys, Mike raps about surviving the war with our dubious, soon-to-be commander-in-chief: “We return from the depths of the badlands / With a gun and a knife in our waistband / Went to war with the Devil and Shaytan / He wore a bad toupee and a spray tan.”
“Legend Has It” continues the album’s hyper-aggressive vibe, with Mike and El continuously trading 8-bar verses over a mechanical, futuristic beat, complete with staccato horn stabs and bells. Tracks like “Hey Kids (Bumaye),” “Don’t Get Captured” and “Thieves! (Screamed the Ghost),” with their pulsing energy and sinister feel, sound like the soundtrack to a righteous riot. The latter track, featuring a haunting bridge by TV On the Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe, even ends with a sample from Martin Luther King Jr.’s infamous speech declaring that “a riot is the language of the unheard.”
The album peaks with “Call Ticketron,” a track that draws its influences from both hip-hop’s electro roots and its mid to late ’80s heyday. Here Mike and El re-imagine themselves as a futuristic Run-DMC, proclaiming their lyrical dominance and holding court center stage at Manhattan’s Madison Square Garden. El starts his “boxcutter spit,” rapping: “Make it get hot for a target / Kids cook s’mores off the crotch of our targets / Kumbaya bitch / Pucker up, little trooper / You can't get past me, I’m stuck in the future.” Mike follows with lines like, “Get that fuck shit straight like a perm or a process / ’Cause for real the money money ain't the mother fucking object / We just like excitement, gun fights, indictments / High speed chase through Manhattan in the night winds.” Later, he delivers an immaculate recreation of the flow from J.J. Fad’s “Supersonic.” The song comes together as the spawn of Arthur Baker’s “Breaker’s Revenge” and Rob Base and DJ EZ Rock’s “It Takes Two.”
The album ends on the strong one-two punch of “A Report to The Shareholders/ Kill Your Masters.” “A Report to the Shareholders” serves as the group’s de facto State of the Union Address, where they both reflect on their place within society, and their desire to rebel and seize control of their lives. El gets a little introspective with his verse, rapping, “I got a way with this, they might drag me away for this / Put me in a cage for this, I might pay for this / I just say what I want like I’m made for this / But I’m just afraid some days I might be wrong / Maybe that’s why me and Mike get along.” With his verse, Mike speaks on his disillusionment with the presidential election, particularly the primary process, and addresses the controversy he was involved in head-on. He then ends the first-half of the track with bold defiance: “The devil don't sleep, us either / El spits fire, I spit ether / We the gladiators that oppose all Caesars / Coming soon on a new world tour / Probably play the score for the World War / At the apocalypse, play the encore / Turn around, see El, and I smile / Hell coming and we got about a mile / Until it’s over I remain hostile.”
The “Kill Your Masters” portion of the track features Mike and El in open rebellion against the system, this time joined again by Zach De La Rocha. The former Rage Against the Machine frontman, who also appeared on the pair’s second album, does not disappoint this time around either, with all three waging lyrical war over a pulsing, anguished keyboard line.
In the post-2016 election world, “We’re still here” has become a common refrain to those who oppose a Donald Trump presidency. Though this album was no doubt recorded before election night itself, the content of Run the Jewels 3 represents those sentiments in their rawest, most uncompromised form. Killer Mike and El-P are still here, still angry, and still ready to wade into the maelstrom.
Notable Tracks: “Call Ticketron” | “Don’t Get Captured” | “Legend Has It”