Wednesday, January 11, 2017

album review: 'run the jewels 3' by run the jewels

Well this is a damn impressive way to start the year, that's for sure. Not Rae Sremmurd or Rachel Platten, only an album that was hotly anticipated by me ever since the last Run The Jewels album topped my year-end list of the best records of 2014!

And hell, if you were going to go back over the past few years in hip-hop and my favourites, you'd consistently see Run The Jewels near the top, mostly because they're a damn near perfect collaboration project that has consistently highlighted my assertion that music that goes hard as hell can still be witty and insightful, and that conscious hip-hop can still bang with the best of them. And while the first Run The Jewels project set the stage with sheer energetic bombast, RTJ2 showed the political firebrand side of both artists break into their set of weirder, nastier beats, from El-P's slyly curving punchlines to Killer Mike's monstrous wallops.

And so you can bet I was looking forward to this record a lot, easily one of my most anticipated of 2017 - and yes, I know they dropped a free version at Christmas during 2016, but the physical copy still is coming out this year, I have an excuse to be covering it now - but for the first time, I had some serious trepidation going in. See, if you're familiar with Killer Mike at all outside of hip-hop, it would be because of his very public campaigning for the unsuccessful Democratic primary run of Bernie Sanders. Now I could say a lot about my complicated and frustrating feelings surrounding the realistic implications and effects that campaign had on the election as a whole, but that would be getting seriously political and it would ignore the inevitable frustration with the system that Killer Mike has made public since then. And if that sort of disillusionment started creeping into the music it could make for a frustrating listen, and not just because of everything I just described but because Run The Jewels' politics have always been more naturally anarchistic: broad strokes and exaggerated, but hiding the nuance in the details, and more importantly not really fitting within the system so much as burning it down... and cynicism can be a really bad tone to set behind it, especially if El-P, who didn't really show off the same political drive in 2016 that Killer Mike did, doesn't really adopt the same progression. In other words, while I really wanted to love this album, I had considerable concerns going in: so what happened?

Well, here's the thing, I could dance around this conversation all damn day but I think we need to snap to the immediate question right away: is RTJ3 a great record? Obviously, but we all knew that going in, and indeed I think some of the more muted overall response to this record is a little indicative of that, the surprise isn't quite there any more, to the point where even El-P is referencing it in his bars. Is it better than the first RTJ? Yeah, I think that's pretty conclusively the case - as much as I really dug the project back in 2013 and it does have some spectacular cuts like the title track, 'Banana Clipper' and especially 'Sea Legs', its weaker moments do nudge it back a little, it shows its age a bit. But is RTJ3 better than RTJ2? For me, that's analogous to the comparison between Portal 2 and Portal - both great games, but while Portal 2 had more ideas and was longer, it also blunted some of the 'lightning in a bottle' that was the original game. There's a similar case for RTJ3 - longer, more diverse, but not quite hitting with the same muscle and impact that the last entry had.

And again, I think both Killer Mike and El-P have realized this, because Run The Jewels 3 as a whole feels a bit more playful and languid, a slightly more comfortable release and not in the same ballpark as the hellfire spitting of RtJ2, which by the very nature of its tone and content was going to cut much deeper. And that's hard to criticize because while I'm not sure the shift in tone always best favours Run The Jewels as an act - the nimble balancing act between over-the-top bravado and humor is the perfect temperance for the bite of the politics - I do see it giving Run The Jewels more longevity. Indeed, what caught me off-guard was that while there was social commentary on this album - we'll go more in-depth in a bit - it wasn't nearly as directed or pointed as I expected. There are a few veiled shots at the president-elect, and on the first half of 'A Report To The Shareholders/Kill Your Masters' Killer Mike mentions how his comments got dragged out of context with respect to Hillary Clinton and his own frustrations working within the system, but outside of that it's nowhere near as virulent or cynical as I expected... hell, those attitudes are effectively the antithesis of this record, focusing on an immediacy of hope going forward that the gleeful anarchism that runs through more of the album highlights. And again, it's the nuance of the framing that makes it work: it's a record that irreverent, hyperbolic, frequently ridiculous, and contains more dick jokes than you'd think good taste would allow, but it's framed as escapist hyperbole, making good sport of the immaturity of it all with subtle progressive touches that can't help but make me smile. Sure, the rhetoric can get violent, but unlike the majority of RTJ2 where the edge manifested in pushing that balance to the limit, the lighter touch of RTJ3 means that outside of certain moments, like the lesser known sample from Martin Luther King on 'Thieves! (Screamed The Ghost)' speaking about rioting as the language of the unheard, you're not supposed to take the violence that seriously.

Now granted, that's plenty fine: Killer Mike and El-P are still extremely strong rappers with plenty of distinct flows who only seem to be getting more expressive as artists, especially El-P who doesn't often step into this territory and yet on the last two songs on this record shows a more emotive side that I thought really connected, the first likely paying tribute to his late friend Camu Tao and the uncomfortable acknowledgement that sometimes he wished his friend could pass to spare the indignity of a man laid low despite always fighting to be strong, and the second with him reflecting on the real possible consequences of his words - he's not used to engaging in the same way. And that's before we get the more conceptual tracks, like 'Thieves (Screamed The Ghost)', which takes a rough narrative of our dynamic duo confronting the forgotten specters of black men slain through systemic racism as the riot curdles around them, the bleak mood doing enough to earn the Twilight Zone sample that opens the track and the MLK quote that ends it. But again, most of this record is the sort of overly bombastic explosion of blistering punchlines and over-the-top bravado that you all expect, and really, the punchlines are so damn funny or hard-hitting that I don't want to spoil them! From the veteran lethality of 'Talk To Me' to the string of movie references on 'Legend Has It', from the targeting of authority on 'Hey Kids (Bumaye)' - where El-P on his verse steps into the role of a corrupt cop much like he did with the military on 'Crown' on RTJ2, and Danny Brown shows up for a fun delirious verse - to the sillier side of 'Stay Gold', anchoring in a reference from S.E. Hinton's The Outsiders and is riotously fun, the album careens from banger to banger with an ease and confidence that's almost too comfortable! Hell, even when this record goes into post-apocalyptic territory like on the BOOTS collaboration '2100', it's a song speaking more of a message of hope than anything else, even when he's trying to reassure his mother on 'Oh Mama' that he's holding things together. And yes, this is easy hip-hop for me to adore, and even when they're cranking out less-complex straight bangers like 'Call Ticketron' and 'Panther Like A Panther' with Trina of all people, I'm on board... but I'm also starting to see signs that this content could start to run stale - after all, Killer Mike shot a poodle on the first Run The Jewels, El-P shoots a bunny here and it plays out in a very similar way. And no, I don't mind the constant string of jokes - frankly, I'm amazed El-P and Killer Mike, you know, kept it up this long - but when you also consider this record is longer and doesn't quite feature the same tight-knit interplay of trading bars, it can feel flabbier at points, and the repetition becomes more noticeable. 

Of course, one of the reasons it's not as noticeable is because El-P's production somehow keeps pushing into the weirder, nastier side of hip-hop that puts him among those right at the forefront of the genre when it comes to textured and layered beats, not as ragged or openly contorted as on RTJ2 but if anything that gives him new space to flex out. Hell, you'd be hardpressed not to see much of his work here as anything beyond extensions of what he's done before, just even more layered, thickened, and alien. Take the stuttering bouncy groove of 'Down' - it's got hints of organ and horns blended with a child's voice on the hook against a swell of arranged instrumentation and synth behind him, and it feels a fair bit more elegant than anything that came before. Indeed, this is a record that's carrying itself with a little more cinematic heft, like the filthy drums playing off the warping guitars and squonking horns on 'Talk To Me' that sounds imported from a Mission Impossible movie, or BOOTS' Muse-esque multi-tracking against the rattle of guitar and alien synth layers on '2100', and that's before we get the Halloween-theme interpolation on 'Panther Like A Panther' that plays the bubbly skitter of synth, snarls of guitar and distorted synth, and all situated in the dank mix of a trap banger! Yeah, let me make this clear, while I'm not sure there's a track that has the same frenetic wildness as something like 'All Due Respect', the flattened sizzle of 'Oh Mama' against the thicker horns of the hook really are something, which El-P then later outdoes on my favourite instrumental and hook here with 'Thursday In The Danger Room', which picks up a sax line from Kamasi Washington of all things and it's incredible. And it's that sort of song that almost makes me look back on the more sparse bangers like 'Call Ticketron' with its wiry snap or the vibrating tones against the low grind of 'Hey Kids (Bumaye)' or the choppy fragments of 'Stay Gold' or 'Everyone Stay Calm' with its muted keys against rougher drums and hints of grinding swell and feel that in some cases it could opt for either a little more dramatic bombast or orchestration. And that's a tricky thing to encapsulate: on a thematic level, this is a record that's trying to show despite a world seeming collapsing around us where dire measures will probably end up necessary, there's still a childlike sense of hope and triumph anchored in the lyrics. El-P's production nails ominous, grim, bleak, and furious very well, but capturing euphoria and hope are trickier for a larger audience - the mix can still have swell and presence and edge, but maybe more prominent or full major key melodies erupting out of that grimy synth, filthy drums, snarling guitar, that might have hit those emotional marks beyond greatness to something near transcendent? You definitely see El-P and Killer Mike celebrating their success, but capturing broader inspiration and hope for the masses is trickier, even if you stumble into by accident like what Nine Inch Nails did with 'Everything' back in 2013. 

Look, what I do know is that Run The Jewels set an amazingly high bar to open up 2017, and I'd put money on 'Thursday In The Danger Room' winding up as one of my favourite songs of this year, absolutely incredible track. No, in my books I don't think this has the impact of Run The Jewels 2, but that for me was one of the best hip-hop records of this decade, and I'm not sure how many other artists could even compete on the same planet. As it is, Run The Jewels 3 is an absolutely terrific slice of hip-hop that's everything you've come to love and expect from El-P and Killer Mike, plus more. An easy 9/10 from me, an obvious recommendation, and I sincerely hope you all check this out. El-P and Killer Mike are making what hip-hop should be right now, and when you factor in they're giving the record away for free... yeah, buy this anyway, they deserve it.

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