Album of the Week: Run the Jewels, 'RTJ3'

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Run the Jewels, 'RTJ3'
Run the Jewels, 'RTJ3' (courtesy the artists)
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Sean McPherson: Album of the Week - Run the Jewels, 'RTJ3'
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No one, particularly Killer Mike and El-P themselves, knew how long Run the Jewels' intoxicating combination of braggadocio, populist manifestos and beats with the subtlety of a tyrannosaurus would entertain an audience or themselves. In 2003, the two were worlds apart: Killer Mike was a part of Outkast's extended ATLien family with a major-label contract with Columbia supporting his debut album; El-P was the owner and marquee artist of New York label Definitive Jux, an indie at the vanguard of sonically challenging hip-hop a ten-foot pole away from anything Columbia Records would be interested in releasing. So it was greeted with some head scratching in 2011 when it was announced that El-P would be the exclusive producer for the new Killer Mike record. That album-long collaboration, R.A.P. Music, created an "a-ha" moment that showed the hip-hop community that a lot of the artificial rap silos bolstered by major label contracts, knee-jerk racism and New York rap elitism didn't mean sh*t when it came to the sound; Killer Mike had an incredible flow and great stories that fit on top of El-P's production. The record was released to critical acclaim and little else. At the time, I looked at the record as an incredible swan song from a great rapper and a great producer who had been forced out of hip-hop relevance merely by virtue of their age.

And then in 2013, Run the Jewels came out. This collaborative record, with Mike and El sharing time on the mic and El focusing his production on the loudest and hardest sounds in his palette, became a phenomenal success. It worked in large part because it had all the romance and excitement of a debut album, but it came from veterans who had 15-plus years of experience rapping before they pressed the "record" button. And beyond the aggression, there was a frank, sober and adult assessment of our country being morally bankrupt, outlined by Killer Mike with a cosign by El-P. The message of frustration with the status quo had more teeth because it didn't come from a 19-year-old twenty pages into the Communist Manifesto, but from a family man firmly rooted in the politics and business of Atlanta. The response and growth of Run the Jewels' fan base is impressive. For a Minnesota perspective: in 2014, the group played the Fine Line and didn't sell it out (capacity 789), but they handily sold out the First Avenue Main Room in 2015 (capacity 1600). Flash-forward to today, and the group is poised to pack 'em in at a venue double the size of First Ave on Valentine's Day. By all accounts, Run The Jewels are doing something right.

But RTJ2, their second album, sounded more like a victory lap than the start of a legacy. The record didn't break much new ground, and I wondered if the formula had run dry. There's a limited Venn Diagram of topics that both El and Mike rap passionately about. And the Run The Jewels echo chamber can be a little exhausting (it takes until track six on RTJ3 to catch a song that doesn't mention Run The Jewels by name in the lyrics). Additionally, one of the most refreshing things about RTJ's sound is also one of the most limiting; for the most part, the emcees don't trade verse for verse with choruses to break them up, instead opting to go back and forth every couple bars. There's not many crews who rap like this anymore, and it sounds great and distinguishes them, but it also limits how deep any one emcee can go on a topic. You remember that soul-searching song that dug deep into one topic from RUN-DMC, Jurassic Five or the Beastie Boys? Me neither. In RTJ3's case, they seem ready to abandon the trading format while still utilizing both voices when it's called for. On "Thursday in the Danger Room," El-P is at his most vulnerable, describing his shortcomings in supporting his now-deceased friend and collaborator, Camu Tao, while Killer Mike's verse aims to halt the cycle of violent retribution in Atlanta. This tune, one of the strongest on the record, is an example of one of the genre's best qualities: telling the personal to show the universal.

In the years between RTJ2 and RTJ3, a soundtrack of brutal honesty about our country's state of affairs — with a conclusion to blow up the status quo, smoke weed in public and party on top of the rubble — sounds a lot less fringy. A lot of music with that message ends up repetitive and hopeless. Run The Jewels' strength has been in taking El-P's nihilistic views and coupling them with Killer Mike's focus on self-reliance, courage and the increased importance of local networks in the face of big national crises. The goosebumps are rising on my arms right now re-watching Mike's speech from Run the Jewels' performance in St. Louis the night the St. Louis County Prosecutor had decided to not indict Darren Wilson.

In that speech, which no paraphrase could do justice, some of the audience seems to slowly morph from a "F*ck the government! Start rapping and let's break sh*t" outlook, to a room full of folks embracing the fact that the music they are supporting is a part of the toolkit they can use to improve their lives and the lives of those around them. And that Killer Mike, the lovable rapper who reminds his followers on social media that it's 4/20 most everyday, is also scared that his kids will die young because they're black, and that's enough sometimes.

Thankfully, like a lot of revolutionary voices in music, RTJ package their most controversial and didactic messages with incredible amounts of virtuosity and some straight-up fun. The gentlemen behind RTJ are narrators who won't pull punches about their vices (smoking all the marijuana, rapping about their genitals) or their passions (crafting your own life with no regard for a mainstream culture that never cared anyway, being great at rap). And on RTJ3, El-P has added some sonic nuance and swing to the beats that has been missing on their previous outings. El-P's production watermark for me has always been The Cold Vein by Cannibal Ox, and this record mines some of the same eerie synth-pads and tuned percussion territory. Though they don't stray far from their high-energy formula, this Run The Jewels record is the most diverse in tempo, mood and arrangement.

If the combination of lunch-table braggadocio, populist revolution and sonic boom from RTJ1 or RTJ2 didn't grab you, there isn't much new waiting for you on this outing. But, if you were looking for these guys to expand their sonic palette inch by inch and create another album that speaks truth to power and speaks "f*ck it" to business as usual, you'll be satisfied from beginning to end.

Resources


Run the Jewels - official site

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