By releasing their fiercely political – and wickedly funny – sophomore record Run The Jewels 2 at the end of 2014, MCs Killer Mike and El-P couldn’t have picked a better time to explode into the mainstream. Having kicked around just outside the rap mainstream for as well-respected solo artists during the 2000s, their 2012 joint tour lead to Run The Jewel’s self-titled debut the following year, although it’s party vibe gave little warning for it’s hard-nosed successor: El-P’s production rattled with the same intensity of The Bomb Squad, while Killer Mike spat angry truths about racism and social equality with the vigour of young Chuck D.
Topping many end of year lists, festival slots and late-night talk show appearances mounted up, all during one of the most trying times in US race relations in recent memory. The duo took to their new-found fame with rare grace: Killer Mike’s speech in the wake of the 2014 Ferguson verdict soon went viral, and within months he was a regular talking head on CNN and guest university lecturer, before throwing his weight behind Bernie Sanders in last years’ election race. Unfortunately, we all know how that particular narrative unfolded, with 2014 now seemingly a dry run for the ungodly shitstorm that was 2016. With a racist, sexist bigot in the Oval Office (who RTJ already targeted on DJ Shadow’s excellent ‘Nobody Speak’), they would hardly be lacking in material for an equally blistering third outing.
Indeed, it doesn’t take long for the president elect to come under fire, with Killer Mike calling out “the devil” with “a bad toupee and a spray tan” on second track ‘Talk To Me’. El-P eschews the furious wall of sound that characterised their last outing in favour of a clearer, more calculated production, allowing the MCs to deliver their jabs with extra clarity. Trump is not alone among their political targets though, with the wider party political system coming under attack on ‘A Report To Shareholders’ (“Choose the lesser of the evil people, and the devil still gon’ win / It could all be overtomorrow, kill our masters and start again”).
The bands’ socio-political manifesto sees them take aim at the business elite on the Danny Brown featuring ‘Hey Kids (Bumaye)’, with Mike vowing to “rob any Rothschild living, Bill Gates and the ghost of Jobs”, and ‘2100’ stops just short of advocating violent revolution (“Clean, oil my Kalashnikov/ Stockpile ten for me and friends in case shit get to poppin’ off”). El-P and Killer Mike’s wordplay is so dense and rhythmic that it can be easy to miss the first time around, but as Mike chants the title of ‘Kill Your Masters’ like a mantra over Zach De La Rocha’s guest verse, even Bernie must have baulked at such extreme rhetoric. El-P’s brash rhymes can disguise his nuance as a producer at times, but he deserves credit for his subtlety here: subtle changes to the RTJ’s trademark industrial squawks at the album’s key points, like layered guitar on BOOTS collaboration
‘2100’, and Kemasi Washington’s emotive sax on ‘Thursday In The Danger Room.’ It would duplicitous to present Run The Jewels 3 solely as a political record, however. The group behind cat-based remix album Meow the Jewels haven’t lost their brash sense of humour, with cartoonish put-downs, dick jokes and copious marijuana references getting equal space among more serious subject matter. El-P’s twisty, pun-flavoured flow has always complimented Mike’s (relative) straight shooting, with even his seemingly most sincere statement being laced with deep irony (confirming on Twitter that “Brave men didn’t die face down in the Vietnam muck so I could not style on you” was in fact a reference to The Big Lebowski’s neo-conservative buffoon Walter Sobchak).
Run The Jewels came together as rap outsiders, and despite critical acclaim, they still are, with the self-styled ‘last two pirates alive’ using their new platform to flick vees at as many targets as possible. Without reaching the heights of the instant classic Run The Jewels 2, this year’s model is still a cathartic kick-out against the world, and one that’s much appreciated. Caolán Coleman