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Run The Jewels
‘Legend Has It’, an early highlight on rap duo Run The Jewels’ third effort, acts as a microcosm for the album as a whole. Over El-P’s thrilling sci-fi spaghetti western beat, Killer Mike spits that the group are in a “war with the devil and Satan / He wore a bad toupee and spray tan”.
Shortly thereafter a sample informs us that “this is spiritual warfare” before the album kicks off proper. The robotic bellow of “RTJ3, motherfucker” that follows is one of the most thrilling moments the group has ever committed to record and while what follows is by no means poor, one cannot help but shake a creeping feeling that the rest of RTJ3 doesn’t quite live up to the lofty targets that Killer Mike and EL-P set for themselves.
Two old hands in the young man’s game that is hip hop, Run The Jewels have effectively become an omnipresent force in the music industry in a short space of time. Supported by a brace of records that reach heights most rappers wouldn’t even think of approaching, the pair have effectively been touring non-stop since forming in 2013 and rarely retire from the public eye, be it so they can give advice to teenage girls, discuss race politics on Bill Maher or introduce and campaign for last years democratic hopeful Bernie Sanders.
All of these are worthwhile pursuits but the effect that it had was placing Run The Jewels such a constant in the music landscape that it gave a sense that the group where pillars of sorts. This momentum has bled into RTJ3, and not to an entirely positive effect. This isn’t to say that they have become entirely arrogant. Indeed, a kind of comic book cockiness was always part of the appeal. Such an approach results in some of the best lines on RTJ3, such as EL-P’s assertion on ‘Down’ that if you want to challenge them, “you’re gonna need a bigger boat boys, you’re in trouble / gonna need a lot of hope boys, on the double” or Killer Mike’s concluding verse in ‘Stay Gold’.
Hell, even some of the instrumentals play on success – the chant of “RTJ!” that breaks through ‘Legend Has It’ is one such glitchy highlight. If anything, Mike and El-P seem almost too aware of the weight that their words will carry and as a result RTJ3, lyrically, covers much the same ground as its predecessor, only this time with gritted teeth instead of a wild sense of humour, which leaders to an altogether greyer affair, for better or worse.
Where the most memorable hook on Run The Jewels 2 was the knowingly boneheaded ‘Love Again’ – “she got that dick in her mouth all day”, itself sarcastically countered by Gangsta Boo’s scathing verse – RTJ3’s highlight comes from ‘Oh Mama’: “My mama said that I ain’t living right / she said ‘I’m crying for you’”. It sounds more ‘important’ sure, but far less idiosyncratic at the same time, which can be said for the lyrics as a whole. Subject matter aside, RTJ3 once again illustrates just how tight Run The Jewels are, with increasingly rubbery rhymes laid down with near-military precision.
Killer Mike’s lines often ooze intelligence, with ‘Don’t Get Captured’ and ‘Hey Kids (Bumaye)’ acting as notable standouts. As was the case with RJT2, Boots brings out the best in El-P, with the New Yorker delivering his slickest lines on ‘2100’. On the subject of features, Danny Brown is the strongest, lending that absurd yelp that only he can do on ‘Hey Kids’.
Instrumentally, RTJ3 is a record that is truly astonishing. EL-P’s cyberpunk aesthetic has always been something that made him stand out as a producer and this is most definitely his most layered and expansive effort yet. From the midi choirs on ‘Stay Gold’, the robotic organ sketches on ‘Don’t Get Captured’ and Kamasi Washington’s otherworldly horns on ‘Thursday in the Danger Room’, the producer has created a world that feels as well developed, as gritty and as lived in as Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira and William Gibson’s The Sprawl.
RTJ3 ends with its two longest, and strongest, tracks, ‘Thursday in the Danger Room’ and ‘Report to the Shareholders / Kill Your Masters’. Combined, these tracks take up just over a fifth of the album’s running time, closing with Mike and El-P each divulging deeply personal stories about friends made absent through unbelievably cruel scenarios against a backdrop that sounds like a collection of alien choirs, horror movie synths and gurning basslines.
Zack De la Rocha shows up to conclude proceedings with a fiery verse that urges the listener not to “stay sedated” against upcoming injustices. This is a particularly audacious way to bring down the curtain as it’s the only part that feels like it truly builds on the group’s previous exploits. RTJ3 is a strong piece of work made by people at the top of their game but it’s unlikely to reach its predecessor’s iconic status.