RTJ return polished, but mellowed
Owen Lane | Friday, January 20, 2017
Sometimes in life, your heroes will disappoint you. Other times, your heroes are Killer Mike and El-P. As Run The Jewels’ impressive singles rolled out during the fall, it became clear their new record was going to adhere to the template laid out by their first two albums: the title would be “Run the Jewels 3,” the cover would feature the signature hand-pistol and fist, and Jaime Meline and Michael Render would continue to funnel their rage, fears and joy into the hottest bars by any rapper today not named Kendrick Lamar. When the pair dropped “RTJ3” on December 24th, the album fit perfectly within their established narrative. Although this adherence to precedent threatened to land RTJ in the doldrums, the duo delivered an album that felt familiar but not stale.
In early December, Run The Jewels issued a statement explaining the significance of their album covers, and explained that, “For RTJ3 the bandages are off, the chain is gone and the hands have been transformed into gold. For us this represents the idea that there is nothing to take that exists outside of yourself. You are the jewel.” “RTJ3” exudes this confident, empowered ideology, especially on the opening track “Down (feat. Joi).” “Down” contrasts sharply with the ominous opener from “RTJ2,” as Killer Mike and Joi sing an amazingly congruous duet that acknowledges struggles, taunts enemies and easily secures the opener as the duo’s most accessible song yet.
“RTJ3” moves from “Down” to a string of braggadocious tracks that feature RTJ’s greatest strengths. The rap group is at their best when they trade bars back and forth and unite their contrasting styles through their irreverent flair. “Legend Has It” is a hilarious bar-trading exhibition. “Call Ticketron” is one of the most unique rap tracks in recent memory and the perfect summation of everything great about RTJ, the production rooted in El-P’s signature cyberpunk production style. The sample is random yet brilliant (outdated concert ticket tech). The verses are wild and surreal — yet dynamic and meaningful — and Mike and El feed off each other perfectly.
“RTJ3” suffers from a slightly inferior second half, where it sometimes loses the same unceasing, unstoppable energy that drove “RTJ2” and made the sophomore album such a remarkable feat. Killer Mike often feels a bit diluted on his “RTJ3” verses and he occasionally lacks his signature ferocity. “RTJ3” is also a noticeably slower-paced album than its two predecessors. However, “RTJ3” does feature a pitch-perfect guest list. Red-hot Danny Brown shows up on “Hey Kids (Bumaye),” Kamasi Washington provides poignancy to the heartbreaking “Thursday in the Danger Room,” and Trina’s vocals pull together the album’s biggest banger, “Panther Like a Panther (Miracle Mix).”
While every “woke” person with two thumbs and a Twitter account made some joke about how “2016 just needs to be over already plz,” Killer Mike and El-P appear unfazed by the past year’s changes. RTJ has preached their concerns about police brutality, big money in politics, surveillance, the prison-industrial complex and shadowy government conspiracies since 2012 and “RTJ3” has five songs that are intensely and explicitly political. “2100 (feat. Boots)” sounds like both a tired sigh and a hopeful protest song. Amidst their music’s outrage and violence, it is easy to forget that the beating heart of Run the Jewels is a friendship. Like the other great rap duos that have preceded them, RTJ’s power is a product of a profound connection between two brilliant musicians. The tireless paranoia and crushing oppression that pervade Killer Mike and El-P’s music become surmountable when they combat them together. And this struggle does not always have to feel like one. “RTJ3” is a manifestation of how this artistic collaboration has not only been empowering and meaningful — but also so much fun.
When Run the Jewels take the stage, they have fun up there. Trading bars with one another and laughing along with their crowd, it is clear they do not have any interest in being the brooding rebels or the navel-gazing artistes. They are class clowns with a social justice streak. Killer Mike and El-P legitimately want people to have fun when they listen to, see or purchase Run the Jewels — these guys surprise-dropped their album, for free, on Christmas Eve. El-P accompanying the word “lyin’” with an actual lion’s roar on “Legend Has It” is only one of dozens of times when listening to this record closely will reward you with a slow, surprised smile. The Jewel Runners’ latest effort, a reminder of the long road ahead, urges you to never let anyone take away your voice or your joy.