For hip-hop veterans El-P and Killer Mike, their collaboration in Run the Jewels has outgrown its boisterous, blow-off-some-steam origins. The self-released "Run the Jewels 3" is an album that megaphones its restlessness while retaining its wicked sense of fun. It's an album about the often underestimated power of the powerless, even as it celebrates the almost telepathic collaboration between two of the era's most gifted MC's.
Originally slammed together in the months after each artist released an impressive solo album (El-P's "Cancer 4 Cure" and Killer Mike's El-P-produced "R.A.P. Music"), the duo's 2013 self-titled duo had all the hallmarks of a one-off (albeit a highly entertaining one): a nothing-to-lose attitude over big, slamming beats. A subsequent tour ratcheted up the energy even higher, and led to a more ambitious follow-up in 2014.
The insults flowed freely on the debut, but they have taken on a more political tinge in subsequent releases. Each pays respect to old-school hip-hop aesthetics: rhymes, rhythm, rawness. Each underlines the essence of hip-hop's chest-thumping origins: It's about projecting identity against sometimes impossible odds. Hip-hop was the voice of the voiceless, a way for the kid with no money and no future to be heard. The defiant arrogance that made early hip-hop both menacing and hilarious permeates Run the Jewels, but it's attached to a broader theme: "Run the Jewels 3" shouts truth to power. As Sly Stone once said, "There's a riot goin' on," and here's the soundtrack. This is less about literal guns-in-the-street mayhem than it is about a mindset, the removal of doubt. As El-P declares near the album's end: "I will not be confused for docile."
The tracks tumble out in short three- and four-minute bursts with barely a pause. The density of the wordplay heightens the dizzying momentum. Killer Mike dances like a particularly agile grizzly atop the beats of "Drama," while El-P plays the wiseguy sidekick on the deck of a fishing vessel in a shark-infested waters: "You're gonna need a bigger boat, boys."
Stacked near the front end of the album, "Legend has It" and "Call Ticketron" suggest that the duo's improbable rise is an unexpected triumph shared with its audience. "And the crowd goes RTJ!" appears destined to become a chant heard at an arena near you this year. Things turn both more serious and more twisted amid the goth-doom synths of "Hey Kids (Bumaye)" with one of the album's few guest stars, Danny Brown, adding an extra layer of chaos to this riot of beats and protest.
The resilience of "Stay Gold" and "Don't Get Captured" bleeds into the storm warning "Thieves! (Screamed the Ghost)." TV on the Radio's Tunde Adebimpe points an accusing finger at the clueless "masters": "What have you done," he sings with deceptively gentle soulfulness. "It's on you." An excerpt from one of Martin Luther King's speeches provides a coda: "A riot is the language of the unheard." It echoes El-P's earlier assertion in "Talk to Me": "I'm dirt... I can't be crushed."
Those who can't be crushed fight back amid the gospel textures of "2100," the rapid-fire Latin percussion of "Panther Like a Panther" and the Kraftwerk-like computer bip-bop of "Everybody Stay Calm."
The personal toll can't be denied, and the MC's take it head-on in the tragic personal tales of "Thursday in the Danger Room," a funeral for two friends. But the mourning is short-lived. On the two-part "A Report to the Shareholders/Kill Your Masters," introspection gives way to renewed resolve. "Give up?" Killer Mike declares. "I did the opposite."
"Run the Jewels 3"
3.5 out of 4 stars
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