Run The Jewels - RTJ 3

by Jon Burke Rating:9 Release Date:2016-12-24

From the jump the latest Run the Jewels album establishes a mood very much unlike either of its predecessors. The group’s first two records burned with a bright flame and tossed banger-after-banger at unsuspecting listeners. The abiding tone of RTJ and RTJ 2 was a kind of humorous, if slightly paranoid, angst. RTJ3 on the other hand begins with a slow burn – the frenetic mood of the previous albums replaced with an introspection and outrage previously unheard. It’s immediately apparent something has changed for the disparate duo. Though Killer Mike and El-P have always sounded good together, many critics attributed the success of the pairing to their contrasting characteristics; Mike’s warm blooded southern flow laid over El’s chilly, electro-wizard, production somehow equating to gold. This odd couple pairing led some to believe Run the Jewels was simply a one-off for both artists before each moved onto their next big thing. What RTJ3 makes clear is that any novelty aspect to the group is now gone – Killer Mike and El-P are fully vested partners who collaborated and cooperated to make the last great record of 2016.

RTJ 3’s opening track, "Down" is a bit of an odd duck. From its slow-but-steady shuffling beat to Killer Mike’s double-dutch flow, “Down” offers a precarious vibe. The loping pace of the beat feels more like RTJ cautiously navigating a minefield than boasting about their triumphant return. If anything the track perfectly captures the tension many of us are living within these weeks before Donald Trump assumes the Presidency. Adding to the tension is Dungeon Family alumni, Joi, who brings her signature rusty vocal style to the hook which adds a mournful edge to the whole affair. “Down’s” emotionally complicated immediacy sets the tone for the whole record.

"Talk to Me" brings the fire back with a Buddy Rich-esque drum loop, seething sax and soaring guitars. Over all this noise Killer Mike transforms into a full-fledged fire and brimstone preacher proudly singing RTJ’s praises over and over: “I told y'all suckers, I told y'all suckers! I told y'all on RTJ1, then I told ya again on RTJ2, and you still ain't believe me. So here we go, RTJ3!” “Talk to Me” serves as a reminder that RTJ can still burn the house down whenever they so choose while also stepping away from politics for a moment of fun.

RTJ’s political agenda returns full force on “Hey Kids (Bumaye)” which references the chant that followed Muhammad Ali all over Kinshasa during his 1974 “Rumble In The Jungle” with George Foreman. “Bumaye” translates into “kill him” in Congolese and in that spirit Killer Mike opens “Hey Kids…” with a verbal assassination: “Say hello to the masters, on behalf of the classless masses/ We showed up, ski masks, picks, and axes to murder asses/ Lift up our glasses and watch your palaces burn to ashes/ Fucking fascists, who the fuck are you to give fifty lashes”. On his verse El-P continues the assault: I disrobe like pederast pope on a play-date/ Better call mayday, baby I'll spray, I'm an AK/ They flayed and plated, I'm serving dead meat fame to table/ Cain to Abel, death's apprentice/ Run the Jewels'll make last breaths Brexit”. The track concludes with yet another brilliant, albeit apolitical, verse from Danny Brown.

Another RTJ 3 standout “Thieves! (Screamed the Ghost)” features TV On the Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe who brings his soaring falsetto up against what are ultimately El-P’s best lyrics and flow on the record. “Thieves…” is also the most fully-formed conceptual track on the album, opening with a snippet of a Rod Serling Twilight Zone monologue and closing with MLK discussing riots as “the language of the unheard”. Adebimpe is used throughout as a Greek Chorus to clarify and comment on Killer Mike and El-P’s verses about protestors and the total failure of the media to clarify the difference between righteous anger and senseless violence. There are few greater aural pleasures to be found than hearing Killer Mike refer to CNN’s on-air milquetoast, Don Lemon, as “Dummy Don”.

Not every track on RTJ 3 is politically charged. A smattering of songs on the album are boilerplate Run The Jewels and while enjoyable would have found a better home on RTJ 2. Tracks like “Stay Gold”, “Legend Has It” and “Call Ticketron” ultimately add little to the overall tone of the RTJ 3. With that said, “Call Ticketron” does boast one of the album’s best beats and “Stay Gold” has some funny lines praising the women holding it down for Mike and El behind the scenes. Guest spots on the record are also hit and miss with the best being Adebimpe’s role on “Thieves!” and Kamasi Washington’s sax on “Thursday in the Danger Room” – both adding crucial layers to their respective tracks. On the other hand Danny Brown’s verse on “Hey Kids” is far too brief. The same goes for Trina, on “Panther Like a Panther”, who is criminally underused as merely a voice on that song’s chorus. Worst of all is an uncredited appearance by Zach de la Rocha on “Kill Your Masters” whose verse consists of the same one-note, whiny rage he’s been spitting since 1996 and amounting to little more than a series of shrill platitudes about the power of music as force for political change. De la Rocha’s limp noodle of a verse on this powerful record begs the question: Who needs Zach de la Rocha to point out a “song’s a dirty bomb” ad nausea when Mike and El-P are hard at work making actual sonic ordinance?

RTJ 3 is easily one of the best, most thought provoking, records of 2016 and because it was released for free there is literally no excuse to skip it. It’s not all politics but the politics present on the album are crucial to the conversation we all need to be engaged in at the moment. The rise of nationalism, political corruption and the increase in hateful rhetoric and violence are becoming as globalized as the economics that underpin those phenomena. RTJ 3 confronts those oppressive forces head-on with a blend of gallows humor and scathing wit not present on any other popular release this year.

Overall Rating (1)

5 out of 5 stars
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