Widgets Magazine

Run the Jewels makes it 3-for-3 with ‘RTJ3’

A brief list of awful things that happened in America the last two years: The loss of black lives at the hands of police brutality showed no signs of stopping. Mass shootings occurred, on average, at least once a day. Heroin addiction reared its ugly head in rural America. The Republican-controlled Senate held the Supreme Court hostage, and threatened to shut down the government over Planned Parenthood. The far-right — white nationalism, neo-Nazism, xenophobia, all of that — forced itself into the mainstream. An unqualified hatemonger was elected president, shattering the notion that America is a democracy.

Lochtegate” happened, damn it.

It is in this political climate that Run the Jewels — the dynamic duo of Killer Mike and El-P — delivers its third album, its most experimental work yet. When we last heard from Run the Jewels in late 2014, it had just released “RTJ2,” an album that dished out hellfire and humor in equal measure.

For a record that looked police brutality in the eye on harrowing tracks like “Early” and “Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck),” it sure made a lot of dick jokes. Who can forget El-P’s immortal taunt in which he challenged haters to “run naked backwards through a field of dicks”?

But “RTJ3” is a darker, more paranoid album for darker, more paranoid times. If the songs on “RTJ2” were like grenades, exploding on impact with immediate force, then Run the Jewels’ new album is full of smoke bombs, slowly filling the room with a suffocating sense of dread.

Much of the credit goes to El-P, who strikes a balance of old and…well, older with his production style, exhibiting elements of Run the Jewels’s previous albums as well as his earlier solo records. Run the Jewels’ sound has always featured heavy, distorted bass lines that you feel as much as you hear; played loud enough, a Run the Jewels album could practically trigger an earthquake.

In his prior solo work, El-P found a way to marry that low end with a dense and futuristic soundscape, and with “RTJ3,” we finally get to hear that production applied to Run the Jewels. While it sounds plenty great through a set of speakers, this is perhaps the first album by Run the Jewels that could be considered a headphones album.

Singles “Talk to Me” and “Legend Has It” hew pretty close to Run the Jewels’s established formula, but on tracks like “Thieves! (Screamed the Ghost)” and “Thursday in the Danger Room,” you can hear them playing with a new sound that trades aggression for atmosphere. It’s pretty rewarding to see them color outside the lines, especially when the results are this great.

Think of Run the Jewels as a malcontent Santa Claus; not only did they surprise-release “RTJ3” on Christmas Eve, but they have stuffed everything on a Jewel Runner’s wish list into the stocking. (Well, almost everything — it appears it couldn’t get Bernie Sanders into the studio.)

You want to hear the boys raise a glass to their own awesomeness? “R-T and J / We the new PB & J,” Killer Mike raps.

If you’re here for righteous political outrage, you’ll get a double dose of it on the closing track, “A Report to Shareholders / Kill Your Masters,” especially when El-P sneers “You talk clean and bomb hospitals / So I speak with the foulest mouth possible” — and then follows it up with a nod to “Star Trek”: “And I drink like a Vulcan losing all faith in the logical.”

But it wouldn’t be a Run the Jewels affair without a good phallic boast, courtesy of El-P: “My dick got a Michelin star, I’m on par with the best ever took the gig.”

For all I know, this is the first album to have both a Martin Luther King, Jr. sample (a prescient commentary on riots, at the end of “Thieves!”) and dick jokes.

While Killer Mike and El-P are still the main attractions, they know who to invite to rock the party. Returning to the fray are Boots and Zack de la Rocha, who weaves references to both Alfonso Cuarón’s film “Children of Men” and legendary jazz musician Charles Mingus into a surprise end-of-album verse.

Elsewhere, Run the Jewels enlists Kamasi Washington and Danny Brown to do what they do best — blow the saxophone (on “Thursday in the Danger Room”) and drop hilariously profane rhymes (on “Hey Kids (Bumaye)”), respectively. Still riding the victory lap from last year’s “Atrocity Exhibition,” Brown kicks off his verse by proclaiming himself a “Word architect, when I arch the tech, I’ll part ya neck,” and it only gets better from there.

Perhaps the most perfect thing about “RTJ3” is the fact that it was released just as 2016, seemingly running out of things to kill, was on its last legs. But 2017 hardly holds the promise of a bright new year. On the contrary, the ghosts of 2016 aren’t going anywhere; the things that made last year so intolerable aren’t going to let up just because we survived the last 12 months.

“RTJ3,” then, is a call to arms, reminding us to keep working to tear down systems of injustice and speak truth to power. Here’s hoping these guys run for president next time. #RTJ2020


Contact Jacob Nierenberg at jhn2017 ‘at’ stanford.edu

About Jacob Nierenberg

Jacob Nierenberg '17 is a coterm pursuing an M.A. in Communication on the Journalism track. The program is very busy and often precludes him from writing for The Daily, but he enjoys contributing stories and music reviews when he is able to. Prior to beginning the program, he completed a B.A. in American Studies. His hobbies include spending time with friends and listening to music, and he is always delighted to meet people as enthusiastic about music as he is.