The likes of Matrix Revolutions, The Godfather Part III and Jurassic Park III have often given the third entry in series a bad rap. “Bad rap,” however, is the polar opposite of anything that appears on Run the Jewels 3, the latest and perhaps superior craft from duo Killer Mike and El-P.
To state what should soon be obvious a hundred times over: The rapping here is outright ferocious. Killer Mike has been killin’ mics since his early featurings on a number of OutKast records at the dawn on the millennium, and he delivers some of his most blistering work yet all across Run the Jewels 3. His rhymes are both intelligent and infectious; chorus lines such as “Oh my y’all, I coulda died, y’all, a couple times I took my eyes off the prize, y’all” on “Down” incorporate clever rhymes with references to civil rights activism, quite the dominant theme on this album. Not an instance goes by without Killer Mike rapping as though he really has something to prove.
El-P’s MC skills may be a small step below those of his colleague, but by nearly every other standard, one of the dominant figures of New York’s alternative hip-hop scene has an enormous presence here. On top of his work on the mic, El-P delivers outstanding production on every last one of these fourteen tracks. Standouts such as the electronica-fused “Call Ticketron” and “Thieves! (Screamed the Ghost)” are absolute triumphs, nothing less than among the very most exciting beats to have appeared on any hip-hop album in recent years.
One important regard in which Run the Jewels 3 improves on its predecessors — which both featured incredible rapping and production as well, yet ran a little thin on innovative lyrical matter at times— is how much the rappers here really have to say. The ultracharged American political climate of the past year has given the outspoken social activist plenty to comment upon. It may have been visually jarring to see Killer Mike paired next to Bernie Sanders at various spots throughout the campaign, but when the Atlanta rapper explained what political conclusions his “beautiful, logical black mind” had compelled him to reach, he sounded as sure of himself as anybody out there.
It is thrilling to hear those views translated into political music on Run the Jewels 3. With Sanders having been defeated and his political and ideological antithesis now in power, Killer Mike nonetheless remains defiant. “2100” is a song its makers deemed so urgent, they rush-released it the day after the presidential election. Its lyrics advise caution against the tremendous animosity that has been planted all across America this past year. “How long until the hate we hold leads to another Holocaust?” Killer Mike asks in the song’s intro. “It’s too clear, nuclear’s too near.” He urges his listeners not to despair, however, reminding them that “you defeat the devil when you hold onto hope.”
Musical activism takes many forms on Run the Jewels 3. On “Everybody Stay Calm,” El-P makes it clear that this movement is here to stay. “Poor folk love us, the rich hate our faces. We talk too loud, won’t remain in our places,” he raps. Meanwhile, Killer Mike refuses to have the value and urgency of Blacks Lives Matter be undermined. “Born black, that’s dead on arrival,” he argues on “Talk to Me.” “My job is to fight to survival, in spite of these #AllLivesMatter-ass white folk.” The numerous guest artists join them in this call to action, most notably Rage Against the Machine frontman Zack de la Rocha, who provides excellent criticisms against current-day society on the album’s powerful closing moment, “”A Report to the Shareholders / Kill Your Masters.” There has been a lot to comment on in recent times, and Run the Jewels 3 capitalizes on that material magnificently.
Three years and three albums in, the Run the Jewels experiment is going as strongly as ever. In many ways, even more strongly. Killer Mike and El-P, two widely-respected veterans of the hip-hop scene, have turned in perhaps the most exciting and topical entry yet in the RTJ trilogy— which will no doubt soon become a tetralogy, and then some, as the great power of the duo’s formula continues to prove itself.