In “Hood Politics” from 2015’s To Pimp a Butterfly, Kendrick Lamar established that “Critics want to mention that they miss when hip hop was rappin’ / Motherf*cker, if you did, then Killer Mike’d be platinum”, positing his belief that, while commercial radio hip-hop may be less substantial than ever, artists who preserve the talent and skill of the genre are still active and underappreciated. As a prime example, Kendrick name-dropped half of Run The Jewels, the respected but unsung MC known as Killer Mike. He, along with bandmate El-P, New York producer and Aesop Rock collaborator (among other credits), form Run The Jewels, whose third full-length LP was released ahead of schedule on Christmas Day 2016.
Run The Jewels’ previous two albums may not have been terribly radio-friendly, and tend to mostly gain traction among the more dedicated fans of the genre, but their oeuvre showcases an approach to rap which is essential in the modern world. Jewels forgo the more materialistic or personal form of some of hip-hop’s most notable contemporary artists, instead following in the footsteps of trailblazing groups, from Run-DMC to Public Enemy, who used the genre to tackle real-life issues from politics to race relations, and the album’s intentions are made clear from the start.
The first two songs on Run The Jewels 3, “Down” and “Talk To Me”, set the tone and act as a straightforward, unapologetic mission statement to introduce the rest of the record. Setting a defiant, confrontational tone, Mike and El-P consistently reference their own dedication to their purpose, referencing what Kendrick characterised as a woeful lack of appreciation for hip-hop’s underdogs – on track 10 “Panther Like A Panther”, Mike acknowledges their edge, stating “We the grimy and gritty, made it the Grammy committees / Got told that we spit it too vicious and would never see victory”.
“Legend Has It” takes the braggadocio and aggression to a new level, including mob chants of “RTJ”, and the entire track bounces to rhythmic bass drops and intimidating synth swells. The entire record features synth-heavy instrumentals with prominent, computerised percussion built around kicks, snares, distorted hand-claps, and textured vocal samples, further enhancing the sense of danger and urgency to match the lyrics. Less prominent are the instrumental flourishes found in previous albums’ fan-favourites, like the guitar solo at the end of “A Christmas F*cking Miracle” from the first LP, this time the lyrics take centre-stage and the insistency is unavoidable.
“Jewels forgo the more materialistic or personal form of some of hip-hop’s most notable contemporary artists, instead following in the footsteps of trailblazing groups, from Run-DMC to Public Enemy“
In terms of lyrical flow, both El-P and Killer Mike bring astounding, consistently on-time rhythms to sit every line perfectly within and around each beat. Rapid-fire turns like “I’m the sama lama doo ma lama danger dick’ll do your mama / Skeeter with the peeter, never eat her, tell her see ya later” from track 4 “Ticketron”, and “All cause I’m motivated, stimulated, never smoking simulated happy and burning hashes” from track 5 “Hey Kids (Bumaye)”, reaffirm Mike’s status as a professional in the art form, while in the same song, El-P throws modesty to the wind and confirms his status as “the Mensch, the myth / I do push-ups nude on the edge of cliffs”.
“Thieves! (Screamed the Ghost)”, the album’s 8th track, tackles 2016’s riots and race-related violence in the United States, painting a picture with violent visual imagery, “No more moms and dads crying / No more arms in the air / We put firearms in the air / Molotov cocktails thrown in the air”, and closes with a vocal sample from none other than Dr King himself, stating “in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard”. No time is wasted in getting the duo’s political and social commentary across, and the urgency is palpable throughout.
Single “2100” was the album’s first offering, and was also released early, dropping on 9 November. Mike uses the beat to preach concern and compassion, opening the number by asking “How long before the hate that we hold / Lead us to another Holocaust?”, leaving his language unmitigated and uncompromised. Track 12 “Oh Mama” is built around a fuzzy, squelchy guitar riff, with air horns and lo-fi percussion, and is one of the album’s slower numbers, sonically landing somewhere between Gorillaz and Death Grips. Despite the song’s more gradual rhythm, the lyrics remain no less unsure, El-P answers his critics with “You running out of ways to go f*ck yourself, I will innovate”. “Thursday In The Danger Room” begins with a series of buzzy synth stabs, but features a background cameo appearance from Kamasi Washington’s lush instrumentation, conspicuous since his 2015 release The Epic was one of modern jazz’s most notable and celebrated releases.
Closing song, two-parter “A Report To The Shareholders : Kill Your Masters”, transitions from the first half into the second with heavily-phased chordal synths, and seeks to drive home the whole album’s message, a dismissal of the powers that be and a defiant call for self-determination and the rejection of corruption in authority. The final salvo from Run The Jewels 3’s assault recruits the perfect man for the job, former Rage Against The Machine frontman and original rap-rock spokesman Zack de la Rocha for a brief guest verse, closing his spot with “We ain’t asleep, we rope a dope through the flames / Man, the world gonna ride on what’s implied in the name / Run ’em”. It’s almost impossible to imagine anybody more suited to the job, and the lyrical skill and tenacity of rock’s most ardent rabble-rouser remains as potent as ever.
In America in 2016, hip-hop remained as vital and potent a form of political commentary as ever, and a range of talented MCs, from A Tribe Called Quest to Schoolboy Q, fanned the flames. Run The Jewels, in this modern, tumultuous climate, remain masters of the craft. Their third full-length album, while sometimes weighed down by itself and the seriousness of its own message, leaves no doubt as to the revolutionary attitudes it wishes to ignite. It’ll never be a particularly easy listen, but delivers a powerful and necessary brashness towards its opponents, detractors, and government corruption everywhere. Killer Mike and El-P have truly assumed the mantle as rap music’s primary forces for political change.
Josh Will Eden