“For the most part, what’s on our mind is coming up with the funniest way to say, ‘Fuck you,’ ” El-P told Stereogum in 2014 during a press run for Run the Jewels 2. At that point the group’s main priority was shifting from unbridled, irreverent fun to something more purposeful. The group’s first record was a blitzkrieg of one-upmanship, flurries of barbs, bars and punches being thrown with anarchic glee. Poodles were shot, faces were danced on, chains were snatched and slaps were handed out like coupons, the cartoonish mayhem soundtracked by equally riotous beats. On their follow-up, the stakes were higher. Fully channeling the rage and anxiety that characterized their respective solo works, for Run the Jewels 2 Killer Mike and El-P stepped outside the cypher, taking their shit-talking to the world at large. The “fuck you”s were still funny, but you could feel the venom within the spittle, the grand designs within the evil deeds. “We run a brand where destruction’s the number one commitment,” El-P rapped on “Blockbuster Night Pt. 1,” foreshadowing the scope of their vision. RTJ3 levels up even further, the “fuck”s much louder and the “you”s incisively specific.
Mike and El become full-fledged juggernauts on this record, never compromising, never obstructed. “Militant Michael might go psycho/On any ally or arrival,” Mike warns on “Talk to Me.” “We talk too loud, won’t remain in our places,” El snarls on “Everybody Stay Calm.” Run the Jewels has always been fearless, but here they are frank, the threats too real to risk ambiguity. There is zero shade on this album. Instead, there are direct confrontations and call-outs: Don Lemon and cops get their just desserts on “Thieves;” Donald Trump and All Lives Matter get suplexed on “Talk to Me;” reckless retweeters get splayed on “A Report to the Shareholders: Kill Your Masters;” land-grabbing developers in Atlanta’s Cabbagetown neighborhood get blasted on “Don’t Get Captured.” RTJ3 isn’t just a reaction to the shitshow that was 2016; it’s an annal, a line-itemized receipt.
RTJ3 isn’t simply some revenge-seeking tribunal though. Even as Mike and El look upon the world with despair, they still tap into their original, rebellious ethos. Tracks like “Panther Like A Panther,” “Legend Has It” and “Call Ticketron” are pure flexes, Mike and El reveling in the sheer audacity of rapping, their mere voices an act of defiance. Accusations of rappity rap navel-gazing would normally apply here, but in a year where a billionaire has bankrupted a news organization and neo-Nazis have rebranded themselves as a special interest group, their abrasion feels radical. “One time for the freedom of speech,” Mike raps on “Down,” aware that that freedom could soon be in danger.
The beats are just as abrasive. Usual suspects Little Shalimar and Wilder Zoby provide co-production throughout, contributing to some of the most nuclear compositions of El-P’s career. Familiar elements abound—droning synths, cosmic bass, corrosive keys, glitchy sequencing—but the sum total is pure uranium. “Call Ticketron” sounds like Mechagodzilla playing DDR inside the Hadron Collider. “Legend Has It” sounds like Gundams playing patty cake at a Stooges concert. This kind of seismic futurism has been a hallmark of El-P’s work since his Company Flow days, but there’s a newfound maximalism here that never relents, keeping the tension high even when Mike and El swing low.
The pyrotechnics of rebellion and revenge keep RTJ3 lively, but El and Mike seem to get their deepest inspiration from hope. Between the boasts and backhands El and Mike ground their villainy in friendship, family and love. “Stay Gold” is an ode to purity in the face of change. “Me and Mike, we just think alike, we can’t stop high-fiving,” El-P chuckles, enthralled by bromance. “Thursday in the Danger Room” is a dedication to dead friends that finds strength in surviving loss. “Living’s a bless so I ain’t no stressing/Cause some of my niggas ain’t round,” Killer Mike raps. “2100” is clunky and literal (“You defeat the devil when you hold onto hope,” raps Killer Mike), but even in that candidness you can sense El and Mike’s desperation. “It occurs to me that maybe we ain’t really even seeing it right,” El-P confesses, unsure of his instincts but following them nonetheless because there’s no alternative. Even the production occasionally embodies this hopefulness. On songs like “A Report to the Shareholders: Kill Your Masters” and “2100” you can feel the thunderstorm clouds briefly part to allow the faintest sunbeams, Little Shalimar’s psychedelic guitar cutting through the chaos to provide some momentary relief.
RTJ3 is an excellent bookend to 2016, but it’s best used as a guide to the future, 2017 and beyond. Run the Jewels was supposed to be as fleeting as a “fuck you,” but the group has evolved by revealing that sentiment is eternal. RTJ3 sharpens that revelation and encases it in lustrous, dazzling gold. The crooks had the jewels all along.