There was one noticeable absence on every ‘best of year’ list. Sneaking in merely a week before we say goodbye to 2016 was ‘RTJ3’, the latest effort from El-P and Killer Mike, who make up the hip hop duo Run the Jewels.
Since forming in 2013 the two have struck the perfect formula blending heavy beats and hard hitting lyrics all tempered with a crude, but always inventive, sense of humour. Each iteration of Run the Jewels looks to improve on this winning blueprint and has brought the duo critical acclaim for both ‘RTJ’ and ‘RTJ2’; from the evidence of ‘RTJ3’, this trend is set to continue.
With 14 tracks and a runtime of nearly an hour the extra year spent on the latest record is telling. El-P’s production is more textured than on their previous albums and is reminiscent of some of the space age soundscapes the beat maestro meddled with on his solo records. Grumbling dissonant bass is intersected by deep synths and stabs of noise. Every instrumental sample in the toolbox is used with electric guitar, looped vocals and even saxophone (from Kamasi Washington) all brought into the mix. The result is an ominous, sci-fi soundtrack that demonstrates all El-P’s talents as a producer.
If the beats are enough to incite a riot then lyrically RTJ3 is a call to arms. Killer Mike and El-P pull no punches putting their middle fingers up to politicians, corrupt cops and a lying media. On “Don’t Get Captured” El-P takes aim at the police by putting himself in the role of a crooked cop: “We live to hear you say “please don’t shoot”/ A pure delight, c’mon, make my night/ When I file reports what’s right’s what I write.”
It can be quite jarring to hear such politicised statements alongside lyrics such as “Every new record’s my dick in a box.” However this crude, schoolboy humour has become synonymous with the group and an ‘RTJ’ record would not be the same without Killer Mike and El-P showing their more mischievous side to lighten the tone.
Features from Danny Brown and Zack De La Rocha bring an extra punch to proceedings. Both seem at home rapping over El-P’s production, with the latter’s verse on ‘A Report To The Shareholders / Kill Your Masters’ closing the album on a particularly fiery note.
Standout track ‘Thursday in the Danger Room’ takes on a slightly more emotional note as El-P reflects on his friend and label mate, Camu Tao’s, death form cancer: “You couldn’t bear to see someone who prided themselves on the strength to feel weak / The cruelty of randomness, hold it for ransom, that life will not fade in your dreams”. Whilst Mike’s verse remembers a friend killed in street violence. The touching track shows the versatility that the two rappers are now capable of and stands in stark contrast to some of their more energetic and aggressive songs.
One of the few positives of the political shit-storm that struck the US in 2016 is that it seems to have fired up Run the Jewels once more, helping the two rappers reach previously untouched heights. As Bernie Sander’s unofficial campaign advisor, Killer Mike, reminds us “I told y’all suckers”; if only more people had listened? As 2016 (the year social media is labelling the worst year ever) comes to a close Run The Jewels bring us some hope that there are still people willing to fight for what’s right, whilst making incredible music along the way.
‘RTJ3’ is available for free now at runthejewels.com