There’s an internet meme making the rounds right now called “HIP-HOP BY THE YEAR 2020.” The accompanying clip is of a Russian pop singer in a tight onesie, making high-pitched, staccato sounds to dance music. It’s funny because it’s so not hip-hop, and thus pokes fun at rappers like Lil Yachty, whose sing-song sound has old heads groaning and – fairly or not – yearning for “the real hip-hop.”
Run the Jewels are an antidote to those new-wave rappers, eschewing simplistic hooks and everything trendy while maintaining the fresh, frenetic sound established on RTJ 1 and RTJ 2. The mood here is fed up, fraught and unapologetic. MCs Killer Mike and El-P are fixing for a battle, and RTJ 3 is a potent weapon.
Killer Mike was a vocal advocate for Bernie Sanders during his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, so it’s not surprising that RTJ 3’s verses cover the social justice themes of the day. Police corruption, for example, is front and centre on Don’t Get Captured and Thieves! (Screamed The Ghost).
It also doesn’t feel like an accident that this oft-political collection drops somewhere between the election and the inauguration of Donald Trump. In Talk To Me, Mike references going to war with the devil, who sports “a bad toupee and a spray tan.” “Born Black, that’s dead on arrival,” he continues, later on the same track. “My job is to fight for survival. In spite of these #AllLivesMatter-ass white folk.”
Feeding off of each other’s energy, Mike and El-P are experts at wit, double entendre and the good-old-fashioned dis (Mike’s dismantling of Don Lemon’s Ferguson coverage is nothing short of savage). And Mike is especially adept at thrilling us with outbursts of double-time rap and delightful cadence change-ups (see verse five on Call Ticketron).
El-P’s unrelenting production paints an appropriately dystopian background. As urgent and breathless as ever, the beats are bass-heavy, reverb-filled and propulsive. Kamasi Washington’s saxophone layered with otherworldly gurgles, bleeps and bloops is somewhat of a respite on Thursday In The Danger Room, a melancholy song about the loss of a friend.
This album is full of bangers and achieves what so many hip-hop heads, old and new, are longing for: music with a message, loud and clear.
Top track: Call Ticketron
Run the Jewels play the Danforth Music Hall on February 19. See listing.