When Killer Mike and El-P banded together to form Run The Jewels back in 2013, both members had been making music for well over a decade. Still, neither had found mainstream success.
But thanks to uproariously playful, yet unabashedly political, wordplay and razor sharp production, Run the Jewels’ third album—Run The Jewels 3—is No. 1 on Billboard’s R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart, despite the record’s surprise Christmas Eve release and lack of a major radio single.
As a solo artist, Killer Mike has never been shy about talking politics, but Run the Jewels didn’t come out the gate as an explicitly political group. RTJ’s first record is mostly a celebration of friendship and love of the game—full of hilarious and innovative braggadocio. On it, the two rappers call out everyone from Kanye West to Kreayshawn, celebrate their team-up as a Christmas miracle, and give Prince Paul a whole song to riff on being a clueless sleaze (“How about I come over tonight and pick you up on my brand new Segway?”).
But as RTJ has grown, so has their willingness to speak openly—and poigniantly—on political issues. During the 2016 primaries, Killer Mike threw his weight wholeheartedly behind Bernie Sanders, speaking with him at rallies (calling him, in one speech, “the only candidate for black voters”), and working tirelessly to bring Sanders’s policies to as many new voters as possible. In an interview with the senator in Mike’s barbershop in Atlanta, the rapper says “In every black barbershop, there’s two black guys and an honorary white guy…It’s gonna be Martin, Malcolm, Bernie.”
Now on their supposed final album (we’ll see about that), the group is more openly political than ever. The theme of the record is simple: revolt, fight back, do not give in. Nowhere is this more apparent than on the album closer, the double-banger “A Report to the Shareholders / Kill Your Masters.” The song opens with the declaration that when we choose the lesser of two evils, “the devil still gon’ win,” and ends with a promise: “until it’s over, I remain hostile.” Mike raps about breaking down in tears at the Democratic Convention listening to the mothers of Trayvon Martin and Sandra Bland speak about police violence. And in its final moments, the track features a surprise guest verse from Rage Against the Machine’s Zack de la Rocha, who returns after his much celebrated verse and hook on “Close Your Eyes” from Run the Jewels 2.
As always, El-P’s beats remain his own. He is increasingly becoming a genre unto himself, filling his tracks with dissonant Moogs, spy movie bongos, and unexpected, Ennio Morricone-meets-Dick Dale guitar lines. Rather than construct his beats around samples like most modern hip-hop, El composes the majority of his songs around original melodies, using samples more for texture and emphasis, like the sampled sax hits on “Legend Has It” (which were nicked from British prog rock group Gentle Giant), or those dirty-as-hell guitar snaps on album standout “Talk to Me.”
And at a time when politicians are doing everything they can to divide us, Run the Jewels are a multiethnic crew enjoying every second of their friendship, which is one of the most infectious things about them. In a brief clip on track “Stay Gold,” Killer Mike can be heard telling his son to say hi to “Uncle El.” Later in the same track, El-P says “Me and Mike, we just think alike and can’t stop high-fiving.” The shared love of what they do comes through on every track they’ve ever released as a group, and RTJ3 is no exception.
Though it may irk progressives when they hear Trump voters say it, there’s definitely something about someone being able to say exactly what you’re thinking. Like when Killer Mike describes the devil so perfectly: “He wore a bad toupee and a spray tan.” Preach!
Run The Jewels
Feb 2, 8pm, $35
City National Civic, San Jose