Review Summary: a victory lap from the loser's circle
There were many sides to this past election. Despite our bipartisan structure, America is split across a great web that leads to our President-Elect; our soon-to-be leader, Donald Trump. Hillary Clinton was the government’s favorite, Donald Trump was the rebel retaliator’s favorite: a fat middle finger in the face of a multicultural America, and a second middle finger to the Democratic National Convention (DNC) for ever getting to this long-corrupted state they preside in today, and have presided in for years before. There were the Bernie supporters, there were the few Gary Johnson supporters (few in a relative sense amongst 300+ million people). In the middle, it was easy to see the gravity of the situation, the potential careening on either side. Perhaps, to some, a double-negative entirely; for a Presidential election is nothing of light weight. Even if you do not vote, your life can (and will) be affected, more-so than situations you personally take part in. And regardless of your side, regardless of whatever moral code some claimed we once had, whether you think America is great again, whether you think America is doomed even more or destined to stay in a piecemeal limbo, all might agree--we live in turbulence. For the sake of objectivity I won’t speak out on my political stance, I’m hear to talk about the album.
But, as for Run the Jewels’ political stance… Well, that’s a different story, and we can hear it all in just about their most goddamned batshit insane and vital work yet-- Run the Jewels 3.
Previous RTJ records started with a warning, not immediately stated in one or two lyrics (though you could certainly make a case for Killer Mike’s “Jeopardy” intro), but felt through the song’s atmosphere. The eponymous, opening track of the duo’s first album is threatening and jarring, and served as an introduction to the fiery chemistry of the El-P and Killer Mike. RTJ3, however, starts off like a dystopian prayer with the track “Down,” (and thanks to El Producto’s signature style of sound, that dystopian tag stays plenty consistent throughout, though less-so than El-P's personal discography). There is a slight fear in Mike’s voice as he spits about hope. Yes, he hopes-- but it’s not a sign of weakness, and don’t think for a moment it’s vulnerability. It is more akin to a signal fire, a one to ignite a revolution. It’s starting at the bottom because they know the top will be taken soon, all by the lighters of those same signal fires. I don’t want to dabble too much in near-hokey comparisons and cheese this up, however; so, how does the album sound?
It sounds fucking fantastic.
RTJ3 is quite possibly El-P’s most well-produced album to date. Each track has its own mood and feel to it. After the second listen, I already knew the title of each track, and I was mouthing lyrics by the third. This album is clear, accessible, and immediately entertaining. There really isn’t any filler on this album, and it’s clear the listing was purposeful. Certain tracks flow seamlessly together, most notably the aforementioned “Down” and the incendiary “Talk to Me”, which boasts an absolutely bonkers verse from Mike (seriously, the line “Militant Michael might go psycho” has one of the most satisfying flows I’ve ever heard). However, as far as production goes, the stand-out track here would have to be the closer “Report to the Shareholders / Kill Your Masters”. This is a cut that wraps up at over six minutes, making it their longest song to date, and really, it makes sense; at the 2:48 mark the track splits in two, and the production shifts from a more sullen Run the Jewels style hit, to the dark, dreary and bitter of El-P’s more personal production. In fact, the latter half of this cut is reminiscent of El’s 2012 album, Cancer 4 Cure, both in the dystopian sound (there’s that word again!) and in the lyrical topics at hand. As the majority of the album does deal with political leanings, including the first half of “Report to the Shareholders…”, it’s no surprise that the album would end with that same political fervor--if not an amplified version of such. It’s Run the Jewels at their most direct, in which powerful lines like “And it's a loop, they talk to you just like their rulers do/These fucking fools have forgotten just who been fooling who” are followed up by the repeated chorus of “Kill your masters”, eponymous of the song, sure; but moreover deserved. And of course, you can do no wrong with a verse from Zach de la Rocha of Rage Against the Machine fame, you can do no wrong with that one bit; and he proves that a second time, after linking up with RTJ already on Run the Jewels 2. Yeah, he absolutely kills it here, and shows that he can stand damn well adjacent to Mike and El in both flow and lyricism (unsurprisingly so, the dude's a vet).
Yes, every song is a certified banger on this one, and while it’d be daft to say the lyrics are wholly political and dense (El and Mike still brag a lot), the tracks that do make their point make them damn well, such as “Thieves! (Screamed the Ghost)”, a track that breaks down the common fallacy of consistent non-violent protest; after all, when things get bad enough for you and your family, it’s not about whether a store will be missing a TV or not. It’s not about any of that. If we were living in a country that does not require protest, then no one would be protesting; but alas, now is a perfectly valid time to raise the picket signs, though some might tell you otherwise. Mike and El know better though. Killer Mike has grown into somewhat of a political figurehead in the rap community, having interviewed Bernie Sanders in his own barber shop, as well as spoken out publicly for him, and having debated numerous times on CNN, Killer Mike is no longer just a rapper; he has settled into the role of political activism. El is also highly politically active, just more verbally so. Both though, ultimately, have become shining examples of social justice warriors; a term that has been used on the internet to berate activism, by holding up the worst examples of the community as examples of the community as a whole (though similar to how some democrats might disparage President-Elect Trump with his worst moments, dubbing all of his supporters racist and such). Here, with hands gilded, Run the Jewels reminds us, vividly, that the only people that want you to stop protesting, fighting, rioting, are the ones that don’t want change to come in the first place.
They remind us that as warm as we want the country--and the world--to be, a peaceful planet shall not come quietly.