On Das Racist‘s “Rooftop”, rapper Kool AD refers to the group as the “smartest dumb guys in the room”. This line seems just as applicable to their occasional collaborator El-P‘s group Run The Jewels.
Killer Mike and El-P are the sort of guys who’ll make an album for charity (one that benefited the families of Mike Brown and Eric Garner) but that album will be made up of remixes of their tracks sourced from cat sounds. “Run The Jewels 3” accordingly features both dick jokes and serious points about racial politics in Trump‘s America. These two rappers will challenge your idea of serious, political discussion with a shit-eating grin on their faces and an 808 kick drum on your subwoofer. RTJ are doing more than paying mere lip service to politics too. As well as their remix album, Killer Mike become involved in Bernie Sanders‘s sadly unsuccessful presidential campaign (now there’s a candidate who wouldn’t struggle to find performers for his inauguration).[soundcloud url=”https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/292308964″ params=”color=ff5500&auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false” width=”100%” height=”166″ iframe=”true” /]
One thing that is immediately apparent about Run The Jewels is their incredible chemistry. Their late-blooming bromance was instigated by Adult Swim‘s Jason DeMarco (who also brought us Flying Lotus), but these two seem like they’ve been friends for life. As El-P says on “Stay Gold” “Me and Mike we just think alike, and can’t stop high-fiving”, and you totally believe it. Their tag-team rapping style never stops being hugely impressive as they unfurl a litany of death threats, brags and #wokeness at breakneck speeds.
Run The Jewels are lyrical rap but never in a preachy conservative ‘real rap’ way. In contrast to many ‘great’ rappers, they never sacrifice intelligibility for technicality (something I’ve always found to be an issue in Outkast or in Wu-Tang members like Raekwon) and they avoid the trope of spitting unnecessary polysyllables while sounding weirdly detached (like Earl Sweatshirt or DOOM). The deliveries of the two rappers are clear, impassioned and never technical for the sake of technical – a trap even El-P‘s earlier material can feel like its falling into. In another deviation from much ‘real’, ‘lyrical’ hip-hop, their music lacks any polite ‘jazzy’ reverence. They might believe in lyrical wordplay but they don’t believe that has to be tied to bland retro-worshipping production. El-P‘s beats manage to marry the block-rocking and the noisy, sounding like an updated version of early Def Jam minimalism souped-up with punk rock harshness.[soundcloud url=”https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/292308759″ params=”color=ff5500&auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false” width=”100%” height=”166″ iframe=”true” /]
The tracks themselves on the third instalment are as fantastic as ever. It could easily be argued that their music is essentially just the same thing over and over again. This is certainly at least a little true but it also means if you like one song, you’ll probably like the rest (and vice versa). Unlike “Run The Jewels 2”, I think this album will do little to win over newcomers but it’s probably as strong musically. The tracks don’t aim to have the same earwormish hooks this time around but the overall consistency of the tracks might be higher.[soundcloud url=”https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/295584533″ params=”color=ff5500&auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false” width=”100%” height=”166″ iframe=”true” /]
The best two tracks on the album are right next to each other: “Legend Has It” and “Call Ticketron” are a fantastic one-two punch that sum up the group’s intentions perfectly. While these two are the first to grab your ears, tracks like “Oh Mama”, “Panther Like A Panther”, or “Stay Gold” become just as engrossing on repeat listens. In typical RTJ fashion the themes move from empathetic discussions of riots (of the Ferguson and Baltimore varieties), eulogies for dead friends (in which Mike actually reaches out to his late friend’s murderer), to discussions of nun-fucking and absurd insults (“you running out of ways to go fuck yourself, I will innovate”).
I find that much of the best strain of current alt-rap – Danny Brown, Vince Staples – has managed to synthesise what’s great about East Coast lyrical rap and Southern party rap into something that works well in the peak hours of a club and on headphones on an urban stroll. Vince Staples can be devastatingly heartfelt in his skilled lyrics and then tell you he couldn’t care less about 90s rap and that his favourite rapper is Bow Wow. The current fetishisation of 90s rap (and 90s culture in general) frequently leads to culture that is overly reverent of a barely remembered past. The best culture is that which continues the spirit of its forbears without strenuously reviving their methods. Weirdly, Run The Jewels are themselves in their 40s. Perhaps having lived through 90s rap they have less of a romantic fondness for it. In this way Killer Mike and El-P can show their obvious love for tag-team rappers like Eric B & Rakim, EPMD and Run DMC while having undeniable relevance to the age of Brexit, Trump and Black Lives Matter.