A Run the Jewels album channels the cacophony of a protest: It feels aggressive, urban, and staunchly opinionated. But there’s plenty of sonic precedent for the futuristic clamor. The beats and grooves owe a debt to sci-fi-inspired hip-hop such as Deltron 3030, and the act’s propensity to call-it-as-it-sees-it suggests the rough, adventurous brand of rap favored by the likes of Public Enemy.
Feeling complacent? Put this on. Killer Mike and El-P come across as the antidote to laziness and silence. With lines like, “We the gladiators that oppose all Caesars,” the record also works well to clear one’s mind after a tough day at work.
Anything this gritty, loud, and chaotic likely wouldn’t work for an entirely planned film or television show. A full-on documentary isn’t right either, as Run the Jewels react in real time but also exaggerate their views for dramatic effect. Think instead of hybrid films such as 1969’s Medium Cool, shot during the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Not only does the work boast a devastatingly cynical view of society, but the real world intruded on the narrative when the city erupted in a riot.
Collaborators and touring partners prior to releasing 2013’s self-titled debut as Run the Jewels, El-P and Killer Mike have become more potent, more pointed, and more explosive with each subsequent release. The trajectory strongly suggests the two veteran and resolutely independent hip-hop artists may be stronger together. Run the Jewels 3, first issued as a download in late 2016, foreshadowed what would become a tumultuous 2017 on the American political landscape. It’s no secret where Run the Jewels stand, as the bulk of the album is about giving voice—and power—to the have-nots and oppressed. Yet it’s not strictly a protest album.
A cut such as “Down” shows how the group’s views on society have been shaped by personal experience. Killer Mike chronicles his rise from dealing dope to hip-hop luminary, landing jabs with calm, steady precision as he notes how he pledged allegiance to education. Then the fight starts. “Talk to Me” feels militant in its aggression and flips hip-hop posturing on its head, with El-P noting he has nothing to lose because he’s essentially dirt. “Stay Gold,” with a hop-scotch-like electronic bounce, finds the rappers idolizing women who are intellectual equals. “Thieves! (Screamed the Ghost)” is all synth-fueled tension. The song quotes Martin Luther King Jr. and puts the listener inside the mind of the broken and battered all the while arguing that those who riot have been living in fear “for so long that rage feels like therapy.”
At more than 50 minutes, Run the Jewels 3 stands as the duo’s longest album. But its intensity only seems to grow as it unfolds. As an added bonus, the set also gets weirder. An alien landscape permeates “2100,” at least until a human guitar joins the extraterrestrial sounds. The song dials down the bluntness, but still serves as a warning to those in power: “They don’t see the size of the fight,” El-P raps, warning to not underestimate those who feel ignored.
Sonically, “Everybody Stay Calm” emerges as a particular delight, with dancing computer beats underscoring a track in which El-P and Killer Mike plead with listeners to keep their cool for the impending revolution. Not that Run the Jewels calls for violence. Modern jazz great Kamasi Washington brings a reflective saxophone to the concrete-cold soundscapes of “Thursday in the Danger Room” as Killer Mike and El-P pen an ode to fallen friends. “Living’s a blessing,” declares Killer Mike, making the case that while Run the Jewels may be ready for a fight, they hope things don’t come to blows.
The vinyl pressing proves highly preferable to the free download in both packaging and sound. While the gatefold sleeve is of normal cardboard variety and features average graphics, the inclusion of a sticker sheet, small poster, and lyric insert serve as reminders of how physical media can be fun—and connect to the musical content. Sonically, the bass arrives with ample impact, as expected, and the emcees’ deliveries come through loud and clear even as the supporting instrumentation seems a bit veiled.
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