n 2006’s “That’s Life,” Killer Mike boasted “You’d be hard-pressed to find another rapper smart as me,” opening up about Cornel West and Michael Eric Dyson, poverty, respectability politics, and civil rights, before taking on both Bush Administrations (“George Bush don’t like blacks … and his daddy CIA had flooded the hood with rock”). A few months later, El-P was waging war with the same enemy in the 9/11 conspiracy theory thriller “Run the Numbers,” concluding that “it always comes back to a Bush.” The two songs sounded very little alike, but the music (and the rappers) shared a similar fire and presence: confident, conspiratorial, no-holds-barred, and razor-sharp. Neither were likely to be deemed “political” rappers then, but both were already dissenters and nonconformists; independent artists signed to themselves, free thinkers shooting off at the mouth.
Nearly a decade after airing out the Bush family, the duo, as Run the Jewels, have found a creative renaissance. The group’s latest self-titled album, Run the Jewels 3, is a well timed, finely tuned rap epic that confronts the ruling class (here addressed as “the masters”) with deadly precision; it’s rap as resistance.With a demagogue waiting in the wings to assume the presidency, their particular Molotov mix of explosive shit-talking and unfiltered insubordination feels vital.
Their interplay is instinctual this time around; the songs move and shuffle with its MCs intuitively trading bars, filling the gaps in each others’ phrases, and feeding off each others’ energies, using their booming voices to cut through the startling noises of a future dystopia. “Poor folk love us the rich hate our faces/We talk too loud, won't remain in our places,” El-P raps on “Everybody Stay Calm.” They’re both observers who refuse to sugarcoat. “I just try my best, man, to say something about the shit I see,” Killer Mike told The New Republic in 2015. “Because I don’t want to go crazy. I don’t want to be walking around angry and feeling rage.” To that end, RTJ3 isn’t a response or reaction, it’s a preemptive strike, laying the groundwork for the battleground ahead.
Their methods remain consistent, but the stakes have been raised over the years. RTJ1 was a fun experiment; RTJ2 was a classicist statement, and now RTJ3 is a reckoning. Many of these songs have more urgency than before; If RTJ2 was the music of protest, then this is the music of revolt. In that way, RTJ3 is essentially the Run the Jewels manifesto, an outpouring of rage and defiance that is never overcome by the moment and never loses sight of the objectives: rallying the troops, holding everyone accountable (from lawmakers, to other rappers, to Don Lemon and themselves), and toppling oppression wherever it may reign (on “Thieves! (Screamed the Ghost),” El-P raps, “Fear’s been law for so long rage feels like therapy”). “Thursday in the Danger Room” peers into the duo's personal turmoil and their shared history, and on “2100” Killer Mike lays out their President-Trump survival strategy: “You defeat the devil when you hold onto hope.”
The key to RTJ3 is closer “A Report to the Shareholders,” which is plainspoken about the duo’s message and intent: “Maybe that’s why me and Mike get along / Not from the same part of town, but we both hear the same sound coming / And it sounds like war.” Seconds later, Killer Mike goes full Malcolm X: “Choose the lesser of the evil people, and the devil still gon’ win / It could all be over tomorrow, kill our masters and start again.” This is the ire of a group that’s tired of saying I told you so.
This is by far the best produced record of their trilogy, with beats that find new and interesting ways to wreak havoc. “Call Ticketron” turns automated ticketing technology into a beacon for alien transmissions. On “Hey Kids (Bumaye)” crackling static and thumping bass crater open to reveal whirring, wobbling tones and ghostly whispers, and Danny Brown slots in an exceptional guest verse. On “Panther Like a Panther (Miracle Mix),” furnished by the shouts of Miami rap goddess Trina, rounded blips mimic the patter of hand drums before bursting into a wave of buzzing, distorted noise that slowly dissipates back into nothing. They’re still clearly having fun doing this and it’s still fun to listen to them work.
It isn’t quite as punchy as RTJ2, which was brutish in its tactics, with nonstop bangs and thrills, but RTJ3 is a triumph in its own right that somehow celebrates the success of a seemingly unlikely friendship and mourns the collapse of a nation all at once. “Thieves! (Screamed the Ghost),” a song about riots as a response to violence as opposed to a means to create it, samples an iconic Martin Luther King, Jr. quote from the 1967 speech “The Other America”: “A riot is the language of the unheard.” In keeping with that idea, RTJ3 is a soundtrack for the riots to come.