Up until now, the story of Run The Jewels has been one of breathless, visceral forward motion. In the five years since Adult Swim music guru Jason DeMarco introduced Dungeon Family mainstay Killer Mike to Def Jux maestro El-P, their projects together — first Mike’s 2012 opus R.A.P. Music, then their powerhouse 2013 debut as Run The Jewels, then 2014’s gloriously ruthless RTJ2 — have comprised an unbroken careening crescendo, each album harder-hitting and more explosively charismatic than the last. Hearing these two veteran rappers falling ever deeper into sync and endlessly one-upping themselves has been exhilarating, like hopping aboard a mine car hurtling toward Earth’s molten core and howling “Eureka!” all the way down.
The climax of all that momentum was RTJ2, a project that distilled everything great about Run The Jewels into 11 exceptionally brutal dispatches. The duo’s signature dynamic — two smoked-out visionaries trading rap-battle shit talk and revolutionary political rhetoric over El’s clattering urban hellscapes — found its apotheosis on that album. And beyond the way it capitalized on the growing wave of excitement about Run The Jewels, lifting them to something like rap stardom, RTJ2 arrived just on time to speak into America’s most tumultuous stretch in half a century. Not only was the album “darker, harder, funnier, and meaner,” as Mike told me in a Stereogum cover story that year, it also played as a painfully appropriate soundtrack for an era when racial tension was spiraling out of control — this despite being recorded before the wave of police killings that launched the Black Lives Matter movement.
America has obviously only gotten crazier in the years since RTJ2. We’ve endured an endless string of crises including mass shootings, heroin deaths, and the near-total breakdown of communication across party lines, all trumped by the election of an unqualified, incompetent, terrifyingly thin-skinned con-man narcissist to the highest office in the land. So throughout 2016 it was exciting to imagine a new Run The Jewels album dropping like a bomb into campaign season and somehow setting the country straight, as if Killer Mike and El-P could author a treatise potent enough to counteract James Comey and Vladimir Putin. That was wishful thinking; the album didn’t materialize until Christmas Eve, Run The Jewels aren’t that famous, and considering Mike and El’s public contempt for Hillary Clinton, they likely wouldn’t have tilted the election even if they had somehow found a way to cut through the noise.
Instead, RTJ3 arrives at an even bleaker, more confusing moment, and like RTJ2, it reflects that moment in ways Mike and El couldn’t have predicted. This will not be mistaken for anything but a Run The Jewels record, yet it’s not the throat-grabbing Run The Jewels record we’ve come to expect. RTJ3 marks the first time these guys have slowed down and worked on a project for years, and all that labor is reflected in its thicker sound and wider scope. The rhymes remain taut and vicious, and the beats are still liable to dislodge the foundations of a skyscraper; it’s just that the balance has shifted slightly from pulverizing outbursts of aggression toward dense, ominous clouds of noise. This time, the darkly contemplative mood of RTJ2 deep cuts like “Early” and “Crown” outweighs the “bunches of punches” braggadocio. The results are more prog than punk, closer to a dystopian sci-fi epic than a freewheeling action buddy comedy.
In other words, the stakes feel bigger. The music certainly does; it’s the most self-consciously sprawling work in RTJ’s discography, from the 14-song tracklist to the way El-P’s production often creeps, burbles, and drifts its way to damage rather than clobbering you from the jump, sacrificing a bit of immediacy in service of grander horizons. Guests BOOTS, Tunde Adebimpe, and Kamasi Washington each lend moody dramatic flair to the proceedings. Meanwhile Trina’s “Panther Like A Panther” hook and verses from Danny Brown and Zack De La Rocha contribute to the album’s noisy sonic fabric, that sense of layers of chaos piling up to powerfully disorienting effect.
Against such a backdrop, Mike and El no longer seem like a superhuman tag-team flexing on fools (although there’s still plenty of flexing to behold, particularly as it pertains to their penises). They scan as regular guys taking stock of their lives and rallying the troops for difficult battles ahead. Both rappers literally declare war over the course of the album, from Mike’s “Talk To Me” gantlet toss, “Went to war with the devil and Shaytan/ He wore a bad toupee and a spray tan,” to El’s moving “2100” bars: “I just wanna live, I don’t wanna ever have to load a clip/ Only hunt bliss/ I am still a kid in my heart/ But these motherfuckers sick/ They don’t give a shit, not at all.” Mike condemns CNN’s Don Lemon for demonizing the Ferguson protestors; El worries about being locked up for speaking truth to power. These are the moments that stand out on RTJ3, whereas before the duo’s bravado outshined everything else.
Run The Jewels needed to make an album like this, and not just because of the present political turmoil. They probably could have blown through another set of adrenaline-rush crushers easily, and such a collection would have been more immediately appealing. It also would have run the risk of reducing Run The Jewels to a caricature, letting their undeniable power drown out the finesse that has always been a part of their sonic DNA. The album they actually delivered packs enough of a punch to scratch the RTJ itch up front, but it’s also constructed with a richness and subtlety that practically demands headphones — not a quality I ever wanted from RTJ, but one that has me deepening in gratitude for this surprise Christmas gift with each repeat listen. As it turns out, steeling yourself to climb back up the mineshaft sounds nearly as thrilling as hurtling your way to the bottom.