At the culmination of one of the most culturally and politically confounding years in American history, one thing remains obvious – Run the Jewels’ feverish energy is capable of sustaining the duo as hip-hop’s foremost political tour de force. Their relentless energy aside, the past year has undoubtedly taken its toll on rapper/political activist Killer Mike and his cohort El-P. While the fervor and angst which marked the genius of their breakout album Run the Jewels 2 has maintained, this energy has taken new form. Whereas Run the Jewels 2 was the left-wing cynic’s cathartic explosion, Run the Jewels 3 is about the turbulence of tension swelling beneath the surface of a brooding and uncertain political moment.
The rap duo’s third eponymous installation is a thesis on their politics, brimming with the sarcasm and humor that colors their wit and socio-political consciousness. Lyrically, Killer Mike and El-P are pristine, emphatic, provocative and earnest. Replete with impressive internal rhymes, their verses alternate with the same chemistry they discovered in their sophomore release and they communicate their ideas with an urgency as volatile as the political change of guard. RTJ3 begins with “Down,” a lament of the impoverished conditions of their lives prior to RTJ’s success. The song’s woozy synth instrumental feels spatially distant and pairs well with the dreams of socio-economic ascension sung in the chorus: “But even birds with broken wings want to fly.”
The song precedes the album’s first-released single “Talk to Me,” which garnered wide-spread notice for its pointed insults: “Went to war with the Devil and Satan / He wore a bad toupee and a spray tan.” The sequencing of these two songs is prudent and honest; the album begins at a point of vulnerability before reinvigorating and remobilizing the audience against political corruption. “Talk to Me” recapitulates the past year’s political context while outlining RTJ’s unapologetic brand of politics. “Born black / That’s dead on arrival,” Killer Mike raps, “My job is to fight for survival / In spite of these #AllLivesMatter-ass white folk.”
The album’s lyrics speak generally on RTJ’s shared political outlook, but Killer Mike does not shy from the specific experiences he had while supporting Senator Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign. On “Hey Kids” Mike defends his support for Sander’s proposed tax increase on the wealthy, rapping “… got big ideas, got plans to rob / Any Rothschild living, Bill Gates, and the ghost of Jobs.” His verse on “A Report to the Shareholders" includes the lines “Choose the lesser of the evil people / And the devil still gon’ win” and “Ooh, Mike said ‘uterus' / They acting like Mike said ‘You a bitch.’” The latter refers to Killer Mike’s controversial reference to activist Jane Elliott, who said “A uterus doesn’t qualify you to be president of the United States.” Killer Mike stands firm behind the assertions he made as a Bernie Sanders surrogate and spares none from a well-crafted diss.
When Run the Jewels 3 isn’t a manifesto, it is humorous braggadocio laced into bass-heavy instrumentals that glimmer with disorienting synths. Its features are potent and carefully selected. Danny Brown begins the new year as successfully as he ended the last one with the critically acclaimed Atrocity Exhibition. Brown’s eccentricity and charisma render him a perfect RTJ collaborator and his guest feature on “Hey Kids” supplements the album’s edge and personality. Rapper Trina provides the assertive hook on “Panther Like a Panther” – a welcomed return to the riot-inciting intensity of RTJ2. Elsewhere, Kamasi Washington provides a melacholic saxophone backing to the chorus on “Thursday in the Danger Room” and Rage Against the Machine frontman Zach de la Rocha anchors the album with the closing verse on “Kill Your Masters.”
Run the Jewels 3 is such an astute examination of recent politics that it becomes difficult to imagine Run the Jewels outside the context of an election year. Their confrontational and steadfast progressivism and their crude but clever comedic sensibility yield an album that perceptively chronicles a time of uncertainty, discontent, and divisiveness. They are rap’s best active duo and best political antagonists and yet, they remain focused on the collective welfare: “Not from the same part of town / But we both hear the same sound coming,” El-P raps on “A Report to the Shareholders,” “And it sounds like war / And it breaks our hearts.” With RTJ3, Run the Jewels have captured the zeitgeist of the past election year’s hysteria. It is a call to action, a political doomsayer’s passionate monologue to an uneasy crowd, and a fire that will burn in your belly.