The United States is in turmoil. There is palpable unrest in the air. Deep social, political, and ideological divides mount. Few albums in recent memory have captured this feeling better than RTJ3. The New York rap duo of El-P and Killer Mike (aka eclectic producer Jaime Meline and Bernie Sanders stumper Michael Render) dropped their third manifesto by way of mailing list and a promotional bit featured on IFC’s hipster-skewering/revering Portlandia.
Killer Mike and El-P are no strangers to strong political statements, but their new album has reached a new height of political-mindedness and ferocity. RTJ3 is an unexpected guerilla release of pummeling protest songs—akin to Public Enemy’s infamous Fear of a Black Planet. Each bar is a fist, each beat a swing, every song a KO. The beats are aggressive, filled with futuristic, decayed synths. The lyrics are linguistically dense. The delivery is fiery. The message is poignant, timely, and timeless.
While Run the Jewels tend to avoid naming any of their political opponents, they do however target one specific political actor. On single “Talk to Me,” Killer Mike takes aim at Donald Trump with a thinly veiled attack when he spits “Went to war with the Devil and Shaytan / He wore a bad toupee and a spray tan.” Donald Trump is the epitome of all that Run the Jewels stands against, and one can’t help but think his election is at least partly responsible for the album’s early release.
Run the Jewels dig deep into pressing social concerns throughout the album, including the Black Lives Matter movement and police brutality, healthcare, and poverty-induced crime.
“Don’t Get Captured” finds Killer Mike and El-P chasing different sociological issues ultimately related to race and economics. Killer Mike’s verse takes on the Chicago murder rate and the apathy in response to it when he says, “Hello from a Little Shop of Horrors / Ski mask like a Phantom of the Opera / Go cold like the land of Chicago / Child soldiers sprayin' the chopper / But you don't give a fuck, that's them though / 'Til a peasant put a pistol in your window.”
Meanwhile, El-P’s verse criticizes the American capitalist dream in its exploitation of the impoverished masses. He raps, “/ Get a job, get a house, get a coffin / Don't stray from the path, remain where you at / That maximizes our profit / Is that blunt? Oh well, hell, so's this boot / We live to hear you say "please don't shoot.”
“Thieves (Screamed the Ghost)” is bookended by a sample on each side—the first from Twilight Zone. The other is a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s explanation of rioting from his speech “The Other America.” Run the Jewels highlights this quote to exhibit how off-base and uninformed some reactions to the Ferguson riots were.
Each bar is a fist, each beat a swing, every song a KO.
While RTJ3 effectively functions as a rallying cry, pointing out injustices and taking social and political stances, it also makes some moves toward resolution and healing. This is clearly seen on “2100.” Run the Jewels dropped the song on Twitter immediately after the 2016 election with the message: “for our friends. for our family. for everyone who is hurting or scared right now.”
Killer Mike starts the song asking “How long before the hate that we hold / Lead us to another Holocaust?” He goes on to elaborate how he fears we’re “so deep in it that we can't end it? / Stop, hold, ever call it off.” El-P follows that sentiment detailing the powder keg of our division, but reveals that he doesn’t want to have to fight or kill. (“I just wanna live, I don't wanna ever have to load a clip / Only hunt bliss.”)
If there is any flaw to RTJ3 it’s that in comparison to their heaviest hitting songs, the braggadocio-focused tracks (“Legend Has It,” “Stay Gold,” and “Panther Like a Miracle (Miracle Mix)”) feel lacking in gravitas, which is a shame because they’re excellent rap cuts in their own right. It might be for the best, however, in so much as the songs that aren’t as socially relevant give the listener some relief from the more challenging ones.
Let’s hope Killer Mike and EL-P have plenty in the gas tank for the next four years. Though they didn’t set out to be a voice of the oppressed, that’s exactly what they’ve become over the course of their “arc.” We’re going to need their outspoken fury and hope when things get darker.
9,669 out of 10,000 Rawckus Kung Fu Throwing Stars