“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.”
These two lines encapsulate Run The Jewels (or RTJ) and their worldview better than any political manifesto ever could. The iconic rap duo — consisting of Brooklyn hip-hop veteran El-P (Jaime Meline) and Atlanta rap warhorse Killer Mike — has been combining uncompromising political subversion with anarchist fantasies of creative destruction ever since they started working together way back in 2012. A lot has happened in the intervening years — an epidemic of police shootings of unarmed black men, an acrimonious election that laid bare everything rotten at the heart of America, and finally the election of President-elect Donald Trump, whom Killer Mike calls a “shaytan” with a “bad toupee and a spray tan”. Through these tumultuous times, RTJ has acted as an anchor, with their fans turning to the group’s incendiary, balls-to-the-wall music as an antidote to political and existential despair. Two days after Trump’s election, when most of liberal America — including much of the music fraternity — were alternating between shellshock and acrimonious self-flagellation, Run The Jewels released 2100, a song about looking past fear and the redemptive power of love. Wallowing in misery and self-pity, even at such a calamitous moment, is just not in the duo’s DNA. So it comes as no surprise that their third album RTJ3 — dropped a couple of weeks early on Christmas Day — is their most aggressive call to arms yet. While the rest of liberal America grapples to come to terms with one lost battle, RTJ is already gearing up for the coming war.
“While the rest of liberal America grapples to come to terms with one lost battle, RTJ is already gearing up for the coming war.”
At 14 tracks and 51 odd minutes, RTJ3 is their longest record by far. But it doesn’t feel that way, partly because of smart sequencing by producer El-P, but mostly because we’ve never needed to hear what the duo has to say as much as now. This is rap as insurgency, aiming its guns at the ruling classes (referred to as “the masters”) while building bridges with the oppressed. The sample-driven Talk To Me has all the urgency and barely restrained violence of a holy war, as Killer Mike snarls “rap terrorist terrorize tear it up/ brought gas and the matches to flare it up”. Don’t Get Captured recasts life as a black man in America as a violent dystopia, with the song’s title running through it as a mantra. El-P takes on the mantle of an American police officer as he spits “Is that blunt? Oh well, hell, so’s this boot/ We live to hear you say “please don’t shoot.”” Meanwhile on the Martin Luther King Jr. inspired Thieves (Screamed The Ghost), they construct a sci-fi dystopian present, with the ghost of racism and police violence haunting America. The track is a warning to the powers that be — “Fear’s been law for so long that rage feels like therapy.”
But the lynchpin of this album’s politics is the two-part closer A Report To The Shareholders: Kill Your Masters. The first half is a heartbroken lament at the state of American society, ruled by tyrants who get off on abuse of power. But the second half turns the tables, the sadness of loss replaced by the vitality of defiance. Killer Mike traces his revolution back to the first slave revolts, with lines like “Pitch perfect, did it properly/ Owner killed by his property.” On the next verse El-P recasts humanity as the murderous aliens in Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds: “And these invaders from Earth’re twerkin’ on graves you know/ Can’t wait to load up the silos and make your babies glow.” You’re already primed to pick up the pitchforks by the time former Rage Against The Machine vocalist Zack de la Rocha jumps on the track like a Molotov cocktail hurled at a NATO arms depot. If Kendrick Lamar’s Alright was the hopeful soundtrack to the peaceful protest of Black Live Matters, Kill Your Masters will be the battle cry of the coming uprising.
It’s easy to characterise this record as a reaction to Donald Trump, but despite the occasional Trump references, El and Mike’s political rhetoric spans beyond the here-and-now. This is a war that the two have been fighting for much longer than the orange-haired demagogue came onto the scene. And it’s a personal war, littered with loss and death. Some of the strongest moments on the record are when the two put down their soapboxes and reflect on themselves, and the losses they have suffered. Thursday In The Danger Room sees the two ruminate on death and its cold-fingered touch on the lives of their loved ones and their communities. It’s a beautifully produced track elevated to otherworldly status by avant-garde jazzster Kamasi Washington’s mournful saxophone. On Oh Mama, El-P raps to soothe his mother’s anxieties, while Down sees the two looking back at their troubled pasts and how their unlikely friendship saved them both.
“It’s easy to characterise this record as a reaction to Donald Trump, but despite the occasional Trump references, El and Mike’s political rhetoric spans beyond the here-and-now.”
Of course, RTJ3 wouldn’t be an RTJ record without the extreme braggadocio, hilariously off-colour adlibs and left-field turns that characterise their off-the-wall chemistry. El and Mike might be mourning the dead and preparing for war, but they’ll sure as hell have fun while doing it. So On Legend Has It, the duo paint themselves as a gritty, criminal reboot of the buddy cop trope, lyrically murdering and wreaking havoc as they romp their way through hell and back, delivering “some hurt and despair” to the devil himself. At one point, El-P talks about what’s between his legs, rhyming “I got a unicorn horn for a…” before a female voice shouts out “stop!” Elsewhere, they spit lines like “RT& J, we the new PB & J” and play off viral internet memes with shoutouts like “Notice me, senpai!”
There are some complaints to be made about RTJ3. El-P’s production, while smoother and incredibly accomplished, lacks the innovative edge of his early solo work. The album length means that some songs feel repetitive after a few listens. But those are minor quibbles for a record that manages to take the gloom and doom of 2016 and turn it into a message of redemption and hope. When Donald Trump takes office later this month, I know what I’ll be listening to. And I’ll be shouting along, drink in hand, when Mike’s verse on Hey Kids (Bumaya) comes on. “Lift up our glasses and watch your palaces burn to ashes/ Fucking fascists.”
Stream the entire album here: