In an inevitably fruitless attempt to salvage the reeking turd of a year that was 2016, Killer Mike and El-P have decided to drop their follow up to 2014’s blistering ‘RTJ2’ on Christmas Day. The surprise release was announced via a brilliant Portlandia sketch in which Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein’s awful PR team pitch the pair increasingly outlandish album release gimmicks that range from faking their deaths to inciting literal Armageddon in order to draw attention to the new record.
Of course, if literal Armageddon does occur in 2017 (hello there ‘Mad Dog’ Mattis), Run the Jewels are the prophets of rage who should get to soundtrack the whole thing. The duo are at their best when they combine their hilariously boastful wordplay with seething anger as with their Trump-ribbing contribution to DJ Shadow’s ‘Nobody Speak’. The fact that Killer Mike promised us a ‘Meaner, Harder, Darker’ successor to the already incredibly mean, hard and dark ‘RTJ2’ meant fan anticipation for this record had already reached Star Wars-pitch before it unexpectedly dropped on Christmas Day.
With so much hype and expectation placed on its shoulders it would have been damn near impossible for this record to exceed expectations in the same way that both ‘Run The Jewels’ and ‘RTJ2’ did. It’s no surprise, then, that ‘RTJ3’ emits a rather strong ‘third Hemsworth brother’ vibe, its own reputation diminished by its world-conquering predecessors. It ticks all the boxes it was meant to: Mike and El’s signature tag team delivery is tighter than ever while the latter’s distinctive production technique is suitably brutal, particularly in his use of controlled cymbal swells. The witty barbs nestled in their lyrics are still sharp enough to draw blood, and the way they grind up pop culture references (most notably nods to films such as The Godfather, Jaws and Fargo) to layer over their ever-shifting metaphors is second to none. To quote El-P himself on ‘Hey Kids (Bumaye)’, Run The Jewels are still the fucking tits.
However, the pair’s third effort distinctly lacks the sabre-rattling fury of ‘RTJ2’. That record was a deafening rally to arms against the faceless, amoral foe they found in white corporate America, its prisons run for profit and the racism endemic in its police force. In comparison ‘RTJ3’ feels like a post-victory speech where the only victory to celebrate has been the success of the Run The Jewels project itself. Brashness and arrogance might be essential aspects of RTJ’s nature, but when you’re five tracks in and the duo are still rapping about having the biggest dicks and the tightest licks in the business; it all starts to wear a little thin. Yes the boasts are still funny and well articulated, but usually they embellish tracks rather than serving as a lyrical focal point.
El-P in particular seems to lack the flair of past glories, too often sounding like he’s recycling diminished carbon copies of his verses on ‘Blockbuster Night Pt. 1’ and ‘Oh My Darling Don’t Cry’. His lyrics still bite (“I’m dirt motherfucker I can’t be crushed” makes for an inspired bumper sticker), but his delivery is almost robotic. This sluggishness occasionally spills over into his usually inspired production. The Zack de la Rocha-featuring ‘A Report to the Shareholders / Kill Your Masters’ sticks so closely to the blueprint laid down by previous album closer ‘Angel Duster’ you’d be forgiven for checking your shuffle function is turned off. Killer Mike, on the other hand, spits fire from start to finish. His Bill Cosby-baiting final verse on ‘Call Tickertron’ has to be heard to be believed.
‘RTJ3’ is not a letdown by any means. Run The Jewels have fended off heavy competition from the likes of Hail Mary Mallon and Cannibal Ox to retain the ‘greatest partnership in hip-hop’ title they inherited from Outkast. But all too often they stray from self-assuredness into the realm of self-obsession, rapping mainly about themselves when there’s a tonne of shit going on right now that requires their unforgiving polemic. By the time the more politically minded triptych of ‘Don’t Get Captured’, ‘Thieves!’ and ‘2100’ roll round you’ve almost forgotten just what El and Mike are capable of when they drag their eyes away from their own navels. Thankfully there’s enough gold at hand to excuse Run The Jewels for getting a little bit carried away with their own runaway success.
Words: Josh Gray
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