Run the Jewels happened to land on the right tectonic plate in the earthquake, which doesn’t mean they didn’t earn it. Rap fans already liked Killer Mike and El-P plenty; both were longtime bigger-label castoffs (Columbia and Rawkus, respectively) who found their own paths preaching to a jaded, slightly older version of the hip-hop faithful. But in 2011, Cartoon Network executive Jason DeMarco introduced them, launching a string of collaborations (a tour, El-P producing Mike’s 2012 critical success R.A.P. Music) that culminated in this duo, which by some distance is the biggest thing either rapper has ever done. Nothing about 2013’s Run the Jewels was unexpected: the two dudes doing what they already did best reached every one of their collective fans. But its 2014 sequel was like an airplane in outer space, feeling almost out of place in its runaway success.
For one thing, after El-P severed ties with Company Flow and Cannibal Ox, and Killer Mike survived his estrangement from Big Boi, neither dude particularly seemed like someone who’d want to give up solo fame. But they inadvertently tapped into something people really missed. Can you even think of a really notable rap group in the last 10 years? Odd Future, yes, who flamed out into solo factions rather quickly, and okay, Rae Sremmurd and Migos. But that’s a far cry from the 20 years before, when line-trading crews were almost as common as solo venturers. More specifically, though, groups often seem like launchpads for individual careers, and these two already had plenty of semi-fame.
So what Run the Jewels epitomize is the desire for togetherness, bros against the bullshit world that’s become about 45 times worse since their last record, which was plenty mad as it was, or even since Killer Mike was an official spokesperson for Bernie Sanders, which feels like eons ago.
The other subcultural shift that RTJ have weathered or possibly even started is that Run the Jewels 2 felt like the reemergence of the Regular Rap Album. As mentioned earlier, their debut hit Regular Rap Album fans. But Run the Jewels 2 hit everyone. It was many publications’ album of the year (#2 here at CoS), it turned the duo into festival mainstays, and it got their logo onto comic book covers, the group into Colbert skits. In a word, these guys went mainstream, and they changed nothing about themselves to do so. It didn’t even have a signature song. Run the Jewels 2 was simply a moment of mass recognition that two long-respected artists had no reason to not go up an echelon on the A-list. It’s on this last point that their new album hinges.
The reason critics were able to elevate two long-liked guys was partly because they simply had the time to notice. Regardless of the album’s quality, note the that it was released in late October, not long before music critics’ staff ballots were due, much like how D’Angelo’s Black Messiah dropped on December 15th, which gave participants in the Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll about two weeks to mass-vote it to the top spot (RTJ came in second place). In other words, 2014 had less critical consensus than almost any year in recent memory, opening the floodgates for the right guys at the right time, which also means that they narrowly avoided much in the way of thinkpieces about lyrics like “You can all run naked backwards through a field of dicks.”
This is not to dismiss Run the Jewels 2, a very good album with explosive, playful performances and a good middle finger on the pulse of the national mood, but to properly establish what their new album is up against. Because we have had To Pimp a Butterfly, We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your service, Summertime ’06, Atrocity Exhibition, and even Coloring Book just to name a handful of the most radical rap successes in the interim that have changed the genre’s sound, business model, or both. Compared to their successors, these guys are almost conservative, which isn’t a bad thing. So after two years, Run the Jewels 3 takes on a classic punk paradox about how to maintain success when success was never the aim, by sidestepping it altogether: it’s more of the same.
In a way, this is all they can do. Killer Mike sounds bluesy and wonderful on the chorus of the opening “Down”, but the dude doesn’t sing. Auto-Tune isn’t even on the table with these guys for joke purposes. And sometime between El-P’s I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead in 2007 and Cancer 4 Cure in 2012, his production took on a blocky sameyness that was a slight letdown from the guileless, interplanetary sonics of his tenure running and in-house-producing the backpacker paradise imprint Def Jux. Mike’s furiousness as an MC is mixed back into the ensemble here so there are no explosions like R.A.P. Music’s furious opener “Big Beast”. And picking out a standout track is tough as usual, maybe even tougher. At least Run the Jewels 2 broke up the in-jokeyness with Zack De La Rocha’s incredulous yowl looped through “Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck)” and Gangsta Boo juicing the horny “Love Again (Akinyele Back)” with some tug-of-war-of-the-sexes. Danny Brown pops out of the snake-charming synths and twisty guitar on “Hey Kids (Bumaye)”, but Tunde Adebimpe and Kamasi Washington’s guest slots blend into the textures.
So the blessing and the curse of Run the Jewels 3 is that it’s still a Run the Jewels album, a promise that every song is good, nothing is bad, and depending on your mood you’ll either bask in the lack of tempo changes, pulchritudinous song structures, and surprising hooks, or you’ll seek out a more colorful record. Their political shadings aren’t much more opaque than they were in 2014, meaning plenty of solace and outrage over the militarized police state but no dynamic shifts in emotion or mood except in stray nuggets like Mike’s “I refuse to kill another human being in the name of a government” on “2100”. That song was released in advance of this album, the day after the election, and it’s the most explicitly analytical thing here, opening with “How long before the hate we hold lead us to another holocaust?” and more dejectedly, “They could barely even see the dog/ They don’t see the size of the fight.” Another outlier, “Call Ticketron”, references their unexpected fame by simply imagining the duo performing at Madison Square Garden.
But this record mostly sounds as bummed as they were in 2014, with muttering of “it’ll never change” in the background of “Thieves!” giving way to Killer Mike calling Don Lemon a dummy. You’d be hard-pressed to find evidence on this record that the planet came markedly closer to the dystopia El-P’s been illustrating throughout his whole career, which in turn exposes the slight weakness of what this side-project-turned-main-event is capable of conveying. Fans will be elated, but the critics who elevated them to the same rank earned by To Pimp a Butterfly will be quietly let down. That’s why one of the most attractive sequences here, with the crunch-rock “Oh Mama” and Kamasi’s psychedelic-sax “Thursday in the Danger Room” starts with simply “Everybody Stay Calm”, because as musicians, even musicians who once collaborated with an American presidential candidate, they have little power to do anything else. In that way, they’ve summed up the temperature of the country’s last few years twice: Run the Jewels 2 sounded powerful, like an old voice being heard by new masses for the first time. And Run the Jewels 3 sounds powerless, like the masses have left and the choir is all that’s left to preach to again. They’re at their fiery best as underdogs anyway.
Essential Tracks: “Down”, “Hey Kids (Bumaye)”, and “Everybody Stay Calm”