Run The Jewels has been making waves in the hip hop world with two big voices: El-P and Killer Mike. Fans can cite RTJ1 and RTJ2 as being almost revolutionary –tossing out numerous tricks and a nasty flow that has amassed into a fan base reaching into the millions today. The duo’s latest endeavor, RTJ3, aims to build upon this rather successful career. There’s a partial political theme that has gained serious attention, especially in light of the rather painful and long-fought 2016 Presidential election. At the same time, there’s a multitude of hooks geared for fan appeal. But when you’re looking to make waves this big –you better be able to take on some naysayers. While the album might be trash –perhaps enjoyable on a widespread level –it arguably flops in certain glaring, devastating aspects.
RTJ3 kicks off pretty inspirationally. Mike begins, “I hope, I hope with the highest of hopes, That I never have to go back to the trap and my days of dealing with dope.” The duo’s opener left me curious. It was one hell of an honest sounding line of lyrics, but as “Down” progressed, it began to feel as if something was cheapening the overall experience. An overly dramatic production? Or was there something more at work. Perhaps it was a sense of contradiction. Mike seemed desperate to distance himself from drug culture and yet insisted on staying high –Jaime (El-P) claimed similar sentiments. Forgiving a peculiar start, RTJ3 continues. The album began a crafty but quickly MacGyvered transition into track two. It seemed like a poor choice of transition in the production –beginning smooth and getting noisier –although not entirely out of place. The suspicions intensified when Jaime rattled off, “Brave men didn’t die face down in Vietnam muck so I could not style on you.” A dismal double negative that demonstrates a potential, historical ignorance. Even so, Mike concludes this doublesided introduction, insisting that the fans didn’t get the message in their first two albums. I began to wonder, what the hell is the duo’s message anyways?
The third track is where RTJ3 began to really ground itself past ‘introduction’ and more into ‘full on song’. “Legend Has It” begins to deliver what the fans asked for. The production is a bit wild, featuring a familiar horn piece and a series of rhythmic beeps and boops that create some pretty intense texture. It’s like listening to the cacophony of a city symphony. While these little tricks come across as impressive at first, they become a bit less so later on. The lyrics built upon those opening contradictions and began to paint a more immature and painfully non-threatening image. Lyrics like, “We are the murderous pair,” lose validity when prefaced by, “We the new pb&j.” Furthermore, it’s hard to take the artists seriously with lines such as, “live like a man but I’m animal raw,” later met with, “I got a unicorn horn for a… (implied phallus)”.
Still, the album gets more aggressive, more drug-related, and arguably cheaper. “Hey Kids” is a violently frustrated attack aimed at years of disparity and oppression –built heavily on crime themes. The rap sundae is finished with a cherry on top called ‘big egos’. Each artist, if only for half a second, gives themselves a larger-than-life profile –it’s typical and when capped off by Danny Brown’s addition, almost comical. Considering all of the hype surrounding Run The Jewels, the track sounded like one of many immature decisions.
The artists seemed self-obsessed and desperate to show off a ‘harder’ side of themselves. Still, I heard so much about their political side that delving deeper seemed worthwhile. “Don’t Get Captured,” demonstrated the first signs of partial-sanity. The song sounds like a tribute to riots but haunted by the duo’s cracks. Mike began rather powerfully yet again: “But you don’t give a fuck that’s them though, ‘till a peasant put a pistol in your window, you ain’t really need that chain, you ain’t really need that ring, you ain’t really need them thangs (…) now the white folks showed up, everything bought sold up.” It’s a slew of noteworthy tidbits that begin to redeem the duo. The hook feeds into sentiments just as powerful, “He in here, me in here, we in here, don’t get captured, no cryin’ here, just do your dirt and disappear.” Thinking that maybe, just maybe the artists would capture the necessity of violent protest in the past months, I grew ever more excited, and then, “smoke pounds of kush, don’t get captured.”
After more lines about marijuana than one cares to count, it is hard not to feel that RTJ3 hides its shallow, socio-political thought process behind a pseudo-badass, smokey haze. When little old ladies buying enough kush to sink Killer Mike’s ass into a couch for weeks, I begin to question who this music was made for. RTJ3 touches upon some incredibly important topics, but, once packaged in a box labeled ‘From: Santa; To: White Folk’ it’s embarrassing and frankly buries complex social issues in a misguided grave of stereotypes that associate ‘Black’ with a culture of crime and poverty. If you want to smoke weed, then just smoke your damn weed; we can already tell by style alone. If you want to speak the truth, then speak the damn truth and just say: “White America has done a major disservice to every other ethnic, religious, and cultural group that has entered the nation since its very conception.” Record sales should not dictate lyrical content.
Toss in a weak vocabulary and truth be told, the majority of tracks came across as repetitive-a useless lather, rinse, repeat of trite choices. A large number of hooks were completely lackluster. “I’m the shit, lookin’ at the money like it’s mine to get, I’m the shit bitch, everybody down throw the pistol and fist,” (Panther Like A Panther) inspired an intense sense of boredom. Meanwhile spelling out ‘gold’ in “Stay Gold,” was laughable. Often times the duo is predictable, utilizing a verbage that caters to an underexposed mainstream. RTJ3 should be a doctoral thesis of an album and instead it relies upon banality.
RTJ3 manages to come out as decent at its best and finds merit most in production. The production, as previously mentioned, is at first rather palatable. It’s trap mixed with a cocktail of other electronic inspired samples. The way vocals are layered over instrumental aspects is quite impressive. On the other hand, with so many other artists taking steps in similar directions, Run The Jewels runs the risk of serving something average –if this were a few years ago, I would have been far more impressed, but the template has been laid out and the musicians are hardly fabricating anything new. Admittedly, this only takes away so much and in that sense, the production is masterful if stale.
After several listens, RTJ3 left me thoroughly unimpressed. Outside of a few mediocre quips and an on-par (but not exceeding) production, the album a bit hard to digest. For the masses who have already fallen for Run The Jewels, this will be another fantastic exploration into El-P and Killer Mike’s joint project. I caution the more critical listeners though. At first glance the album seemed as if it was going to be golden. Upon closer inspection, the lyrics seemed irresponsible for such turbulent times and the overall quality came across as overrated. Considering both El-P and Killer Mike’s long musical careers and powerful partnership, it’s difficult to say the project should be scrapped. RTJ3 is defining in so far that it demonstrates the difficulty of not only coping but giving a degree of credence and respect to the intensity of issues we face today.