Once part of a thriving ecosystem of artists, rap duos have grown extinct in the modern landscape of music. The two-man teams we see these days are usually presented as one-off collabs or money grabs meant to milk a little extra profit from fans while each member only has to do half the work. That’s why Run The Jewels finding success is a wonderful outlier, as they exist as the opposites of everything the industry loves to prop up and, as a result, makes them the underdogs that fans are inherently drawn to. Why El-P and Killer Mike mesh so well together is they have a resilient bond and working chemistry that are in full bloom with their latest release, Run The Jewels 3. They’re both rap vets who’ve been through enough trials and experiences alone to understand how the dynamics of a group give them strength and support as they work to deliver their messages to the masses.
The two year gap in between projects has been filled with change. In 2014, RTJ2 signaled a change on the horizon, one where people assumed a positive outcome was on the verge of happening. Now, America and the world as a whole are in a dark, discomforting place at the moment as terror attacks continue across the globe and the U.S. awaits inauguration of President-elect Donald Trump. While most rap today is preoccupied with turning up in the face of gloom, Killer Mike and El-P embrace the darkness and, with their new album, end up creating a ray of light that makes the future seem not as disconcerting as it once appeared.
The Atlanta-Brooklyn combo has always rapped in the face of corruption and injustice, continuing down the path they forged previously in their solo careers. Their joint work as Run The Jewels takes on a stronger meaning because it’s when they’re together — a black MC paired with a white MC — that it becomes more apparent how much more alike than different we all are, regardless of the racial and social economic boxes society tries to place us in. As a united front, their music and mere presence leads their legion of fans in the fight against hypocrisy on all levels, by helping bring the enemies of freedom into focus and directing where people they should be looking, denoting why they should pay attention, and suggesting ways to counter those forces.
Their outspoken approach is a luxury the group created for themselves as captains of their own ship. The fact that their new album released three weeks earlier than expected, on Christmas Eve no less, is a testament to their we-do-what-we-want-when-we-want formula. Their approach is simple, best summed up in one of El’s recent tweets that read “Our goal is to consistently release bad ass, fucked up, raw music with style that grows at its natural pace and stays true to us.”
RTJ3 is indeed a progression from the two previous efforts. As the third album in a five-year span, the new record is even more powerful and jarring than the ones that came before it, thanks to the clashing production and the range of topics covered in the lyrics. There are still those songs like “A Report to Shareholders/Kill Your Masters” and “Don’t Get Captured” that are affronts to the powers that be, which is part of what’s come to be expected at this point. “Oh Mama” is the brassy, ballsy effort listeners have come to know and love from the duo as they figuratively roam the streets, two bad guys who can’t be defeated.
It’s a tried-and-true formula, one that fuels “Everybody Stay Calm,” “Hey Kids (Bumaye),” “Stay Gold” and others. On each of these tracks, the dynamic duo’s either taking quick tag team passes of the mic with shortened verses or they’re throwing in ad-libs for each other, all while kicking ass and taking names along the way. It’s as if the first two releases were practice leading up to number three and now they’ve found their stride, and are able to piggyback off one another’s words and ideas with ease.
What separates volume three from previous outings is how much more personal the material becomes, though; both guys sound much more comfortable and confident about sharing how they feel about life as they know it, as heard on numbers like “Call Ticketron.” The cut hosts the usual rounds of colorful boasts (“Last two pirates alive are still yaaarging”) while gems like El-P pledging his love for his lady lies nestled in the lyrics. While not nearly as romantic, the ominous “2100” is as emotional as it gets in this countdown to doomsday. Their description of an apocalyptic world fits today to a tee, as apprehension has become part of the daily range of emotions for most Americans. The Jewels brothers again just find a better way to articulate those thoughts and feelings into spoken words that are as beautiful as they are frightening in the context they create.
If there’s one specific track that separates the new project from the last, it would have to be the one characterized as an “incredibly personal record” by El-P: “Thursday In The Danger Room,” which features the smoldering saxophone of Kamasi Washington, adding to the track’s tug at the heart strings as El and Mike eulogize two lost friends with their verses. “Thursday” serves as a break on their attack of the world at large for a moment while they stop to examine their own small circle of friends and family. For El, the pain comes from watching a close friend suffering through an undefined illness that makes him wish the suffering would end not just for his homie, but for his own sake.
“Like how do you look in the eyes of a friend and not cry when you know that they’re dying?
How do you feel ’bout yourself when you know that sometimes you had wished they were gone?
Not because you didn’t love ’em but just because you felt too weak to be strong”
Slightly selfish? In ways, yes, at least on the surface. But, El’s honesty doesn’t come off as an offense because we’ve all experienced similar anguish while watching a close relative or friend wither away physically and mentally at the expense of a sickness. El is just confident and eloquent enough to admit to it publicly and, in doing so, he exposes a side of himself to which Jewel Runners and all other fans can relate. But, more than anything, he’s comfortable making these admissions because he’s bolstered by a rhyme partner who’s equally capable of doing and saying the same.
Never one to shy away from speaking openly, Mike follows suit in verse two by owning up to how hard it was for him to “be the man” for a slain friend’s girlfriend and young child. That role is one that men internalize society placing on them, they often feel they are asked them to put on a strong face for the women and children around them while pushing down their own anguish, lest they be perceived as weak. At six-foot-something and as physically imposing as a NFL lineman, Killer Mike has probably never been labeled anything less than a man’s man, yet he admits that even he sometimes wants to buckle in response to the pressure.
“And he got no drama but his baby mama is still on my line and she cryin’
I searched for the words to give her some comfort for her soul and spirit and mind
I tell her that it’ll be fine
But deep down I know that I’m lying”
Towards the end of the verse, he simultaneously lashes out at the killer while also praying the person has managed to right his wrongs. Compared to what we’re accustomed to hearing from rappers on revenge, Mike’s words here show a level of empathy that comes with living 40 years and understanding that avenging a death only continues a cycle by shifting the hurt over to another family. No longer “just as a rapper,” it’s part of the elder statesman role he’s embraced as his profile has increased, especially over the past two years with his emergence as a political and social activist.
For Run The Jewels, their third release builds off the bravado and high levels of lyricism established previously while adding in layers. They’re shifting from simply being a group who raps well to a space where they’re sending out unified messages to ears eager to soak up those perspectives. What’s even bigger is El-P and Mike could be leading the resurrection of rap duos by striking with three consecutive LPs that further endear them to the legions of fans who’ve embraced them. The only hurdle is any tandem that tries to emulate what RTJ’s done so far might have a hard time meeting the lofty expectations these two have created so far.