I didn’t count the number of times the phrase “Run the jewels”, “RTJ” or some equivalent finds its way into Run the Jewels 3, the third full-length release (if you exclude 2015’s hilarious Meow the Jewels) from Killer Mike and El-P, but I can confirm it’s dropped pretty frequently. Clearly the concept of jewel-running is an important one to the duo, but the third iteration of the classic gun-fist pair that traditionally adorns Run the Jewels’ album covers is empty-handed—the chain clutched on the covers of Run the Jewels and Run the Jewels 2 has vanished. The hands are now unbandaged, revealing a treasure unmatched by any worldly jewel: a gun and fist immortalised in solid gold.
The interpretation of this metamorphosis is open: perhaps it is an empowering message of self-confidence (in a statement the pair said that “there is nothing to take that exists outside of yourself. You are the jewel”), or maybe it’s a confirmation that Run the Jewels have reached the top and left all other competition in the dust. RTJ3 embraces both of these sentiments warmly, and the latter in particular is evident in the huge confidence that oozes from Mike and El-P’s incredible lyrics and slick production. In opener ‘Down’, El-P’s first line on the album is the quip “You’re gonna need a bigger boat, boys, you’re in trouble”, gloated over the track’s shuffling beat and bit-crushed, warm chords, while in the opening seconds of ‘Legend Has It’, Mike is quick to note that RTJ “dropped a classic today”.
This bolstered confidence is, however, completely founded: RTJ3 is Killer Mike and El-P at the absolute top of their game, as just one listen to the standout ‘Call Ticketron’ confirms. El-P’s production on this track is sublime: the gliding, arpeggiated two-tone ticking is as rhythmic as the finger-clicked beat, while the simple phrase “Run the Jewels, live from the garden” is transformed into an infectiously catchy earworm hook through El-P’s tinkering with a malleable sample. Meanwhile, Killer Mike’s third verse unleashes a flood of popping syllables that is as dizzying as it is impressive. Killer Mike and El-P’s performances are admirable on their own, but RTJ is a duo after all, and ‘Call Ticketron’ is a shining example of where the pair’s chemistry pumps up RTJ3 to greater than the sum of its parts.
In case you were wondering, they’re still tough as nails. On lead single ‘Talk to Me’, Mike is armed with “a gun and a knife in [his] waistband”, reminiscent of RTJ2 opener ‘Jeopardy’, in which he storms in toting a similar arsenal. Even without a lyrical threat, El-P’s production on so many of RTJ3’s tracks conjures menace in its subtle dissonance and quietly seething timbres. The heaviest production juggernaut on RTJ3 is ‘Legend Has It’, a sumo-sized masterpiece that stomps from side to side, smashing its on-beats home with the help of octave-spanning horns. Though RTJ3 is littered with a catalogue of adrenaline-surging moments, none compare to the latter’s hook, where the scratchy filtered hi-hats spearhead a polished beat punctured with the occasional “woo!”. It’s a moment of triumph that psyches Mike and El-P up for the coming fight of the record.
The fight is a bloody one: RTJ3 was recorded in the shadow of a threat bigger and darker than competition for Run the Jewels. As ‘Talk to Me’ establishes, this is a “fight against principalities and evil-doers and unclean spirits”. More specifically, this is a war with “the devil and Shaytan”, who “wore a bad toupee and a spray tan”. Single ‘2100’ is devoted to battling the Trump-shaped evil. Though their fear is palpable in Boots’ crooning vocals and the track’s dark guitar arpeggios, Mike and El-P assert that the “revolution’s right here, right now”, that they are “standing at your side for the fight”. On ‘Don’t Get Captured’, El-P calls out brutal police who “live to hear you say ‘Please don’t shoot!’” but still “paint the walls with your heart”, while ‘Thieves! (Screamed the Ghost)’ attacks the demonisation of riots erupting at police violence protests. There are choice words for #AllLivesMatter. There are threats to rob Steve Jobs’ departed spirit. The humour is pitch black and weed is smoked by the pound. Run the Jewels are angry.
All hell breaks loose in album closer ‘A Report to the Shareholders / Kill Your Masters’, whose title alone separates mundane conformity from total revolt with the finest of lines. The dispirited chords of ‘A Report to the Shareholders’ mourn the consequences of continuing to accept political injustice as it is dealt, when the power to change is seemingly within our reach: “Choose the lesser of the evil people, and the devil still gon’ win; it could all be over tomorrow, kill our masters and start again”. Then, ‘Kill Your Masters’ thunders in: horns blare over an apocalyptic diminished fifth bassline, and all-out lyrical war rages, with Militant Michael encouraging the titular deed over the track’s hook. It’s a charged and fitting conclusion to an album that arms its rage with wit and wisdom, and whether or not any coming revolution will be so literal, ‘Kill Your Masters’ completes RTJ3’s deep-throated bark back at the establishment with the threat of a bite.
Run the Jewels 3 exhibits an accomplished sound that would be impressive even if devoid of context, but its status as an explicit and potent backlash to cultural and political injustices in the US cements its position at the top of the podium of Run the Jewels’ canon. The album is so much a demonstration of the by now well-refined power of Killer Mike and El-P’s collaboration that the presence of guests like Danny Brown and Zack de la Rocha is by no means unwelcome, but feels for the most part unnecessary. From within the beats and bars of Run the Jewels 3, I heard the revolution coming. You should spread the news.