Run the Jewels are the deadliest tag team in rap today. Separately, veteran ATLien Killer Mike and Brooklyn boy El-P have been monoliths in the alternative hip hop since the late '90s. The two were connected in 2011 by, of all people, a Cartoon Network executive and began to jive when El-P executive-produced Killer Mike's lethal 2012 album, R.A.P. Music. The very next year, Run the Jewels appeared online as a free download where the hitmen traded unrelenting verses, quickly becoming the Jules Winnfield and Vincent Vega of underground music.
In 2014, the powerhouse duo released Run the Jewels 2, a magnum opus of hip-hop that pushed the genre to new levels of aggression and redefined what "bars" really meant. A modern classic, it topped more than a few year-end lists and elevated Run the Jewels to a cult stardom that neither MC had seen in their 20-year careers separately.
Following up a release like RTJ2 is no easy feat. Had Run the Jewels 3 (released digitally on Dec. 24 and physically on Jan. 13) tried to duplicate the balls-through-the-fucking-wall intensity of its predecessor, the result could have felt like the 41- year-olds were past their prime. Instead, the two pull back a bit and tighten up, doubling down on thought-provoking political lines and nuanced production. Don't get us wrong, Run the Jewels are still the hardest-hitting duo in rap today – there's no one competing with them and they're not worried about competing with themselves.
Politics have always played a role in Mike and El's discographies. However, the themes of race, corruption and oppression stand out now more than ever, as the country seems to be at a boiling point. RTJ3 isn't an anti-Trump album in totality, but its creation comes as a response to the direction that the U.S. was headed before Trump, and the one the president-elect seems to be gearing everyone up for. Mike goes after the corrupt directly. Neither side is safe. Shots are constantly fired, whether it be at Trump – "Went to war with the Devil and Shaytan/ He wore a bad toupee and a spray tan" – or CNN's Don Lemon reporting on the Ferguson protests – "CNN got dummy Don on the air/ Talking 'bout he smell that ganj' in the air." Throughout the album, lines like these are juxtaposed against samples taken from throughout history to drive a point forward. The former comes before a reading of Ephesians 6:12, and the latter is bookended by The Twilight Zone's Rod Serling and Dr. Martin Luther King asserting, "A riot is the language of the unheard."
A conscious evolution or not, El-P's production adapts to the additional emphasis on prose, leaving room to breathe. In fact, these beats are some of the most subtle of RTJ's catalog. Huge, crunching, arena-rap instrumentals are, at times, traded in for more low-key bangers built from synth and walls of bass. The MCs too slow down so that our brains can keep up with the knowledge they are sharing. (El in particular has found his own lane within the group, focusing on clever flow instead of trying to keep up with Mike's constant ferocity.) If RTJ2 was a continuous curb stomp to the ears, RTJ3 is a tortuous slow-cut a la "The Pit and the Pendulum." The opener, "Down," is a perfect summation of this constrained ideal. At first it felt like an oddly down-tempo introduction when comparing it with the monster track that opened RTJ2, until you realize it's how they were getting fans ready for what follows. The impact isn't as immediate, but over repeated listens RTJ3 finds you and feels more gratifying.
Tremendous expectations often lead to disappointment, but instead of re-creating what they had already done, Killer Mike and El-P refined and refocused. With their second album, Run the Jewels rose to power. Their third sees them atop the underground's throne, bragging over the charred rubble of the establishment.