It sounds futuristic; it sounds foreign; it sounds like right here and right now.
Run the Jewels is a back with a stomping christmas gift for all disaffected hip hop heads out there. The album, not being physically released until January 20 worldwide, is now available for download on the official Run The Jewels site here: runthejewels.com
This is non-conformist hip hop from the perennial experimentalists. It doesn’t sound like other rap and doesn’t really walk or talk like other rap. Yeah, they explore some of the same themes as other artists, but they do it in their own alien language. It’s like a poetry you’ve never heard before. Like 5 year olds talking about epistemology or CEO’s debating morality. It’s hard to say this album is a break out or a massive advancement on what they’ve already done because their first efforts came out with such force and coherence. And while this can be something that hamstrings artists—being expected to better themselves on every album— RTJ approach these expectations with zen-like good humour and effortlessness. RTJ3 doesn’t sound a whole lot different than its precursors. They’re not trying to be heavier, or slower or more melodic or take it in any direction. It’s just an advancement of what they’ve realised they can do: make very loud, intricate and earnest music that is completely idiosyncratic. On this release, they meditate on unexpected success (Down), an uncertain future (2100, Everyone Stay Calm, Talk to Me), the power of money and poverty (Gold, Don’t Get Captured, Thieves).
Run The Jewls has been together since 2013, a supergroup consisting of EL-P, an acclaimed rapper and producer from NY who has been a perennial maverick of hip hop’s smarter underground and Killer Mike, an Atlanta MC who released the critically acclaimed R.A.P Music in 2012. They have released two albums to wide acclaim since. Mike’s also recently became a salient political figure, being a visible proponent of Bernie Sanders in this year’s earlier presidential election, and although he’s always had sociopolitical bars, he harangues with the force of a prophet on this release. El-P’s electric tapestry of post-industrial jigsaw pieces has gotten darker and more mechanised; it almost feels devoid of any human touch. The virtuosic delivery of both Mike and El completes these expressionistic sketches, bubbling with cartoonish excess. It’s a dark accompaniment to late-Capitalism, a paranoid travelogue where all the characters seem to exist in a narcotised confusion, but for the two antihero narrators leading us assuredly by the hand.
RTJ3 is a longer and more exploratory offering, with more sounds and glitches, smoking circuits, more flows, and more ghostly electric hooks. Everything about this album is chimeric and eclectic. It never stays in one tempo or tone for long, always content to throw a new flurry at you. They’re like kids constantly rediscovering themselves on every new song. It makes for a riveting listen, as nothing has sounded more alive or ‘now’ than this. It’s the perfect counterpoint for 2016- loud, obnoxious, and exquisite in its ugliness and imperfection.
The album opens with the dour, electro-church lament of Down (feat. Joi), where Mike’s typically fair ground flow, with its extreme dynamics and tempo variations, is let loose over some swelling chords. It’s a reflective and anthemic opening to a real salad of an album. There’s a simple, chopped and screwed boom bap beat on the melody with Mike’s flow tying the spaciousness together and they don’t really get more introspective than this, except on maybe Thieves.
The electro-tribal boom bap continues on the rocketing Talk to Me, an androids dream of electric soul that sounds like a disco classic fro another galaxy. Mike sings along with El-P’s masterful conductors batten on the chorus and you can really hear the difference between the two emcees’ styles on this track. Mikes running, fluid grooves juxtapose with El-P’s staunch, reverberating punchline prowess and somehow they fit together like it was predestined- like a yin yang.
Call ticketron shows RTJ moving forward. The beat kicks off like a thousand electric cicadas, taking the tempo way beyond any frantic sprint they’ve yet made. Ratting along at 5000 miles an hour it’s a disjointed, shadow-chasing piece that the two emcees effortlessly dance over. Mouths full of angry verbs fly from El-P like litter from the back of the A train, while Mike’s lacquered boom carries us over the broken spacecraft below. If RTJ3 didn’t feel as natural as their last two releases, it would almost be showoff-y, filled with track to make both rappers and producers scared, but not alienating to the listener. The beats are throwing back to El-P’s solo, even Company Flow days where chopped up, sci-fi movie sounds bubble up from the layers of production. It’s all very virtuosic. Danny Brown on Bombaye is a logical feature. He’s one of the only other rappers touching beats as asymmetric and jagged as RTJ regularly do. El, despite being adventurous and untethered, always seems to bring all the separate elements together on the chorus to create something powerful that’ll get stuck in your head.
Stay Gold sounds exactly like hip hop will sounds in 25 years. It’s got all the same elements of that Golden Age of 90’s hip hop- dual vocalists; spelling out the song title as the chorus; a heavy beat with a catchy hook; but no-one could ever have imagined hip hop becoming so jerky and weird. The whole album sounds like it’s come from a parallel dimension, leaked out like some cosmic secret, and now we’re just standing in front of the edifice, wondering: what the fuck? Similar with Panther like a Panther, another gritty update to hip hop’s dirty rolodex. The album stays strong throughout. RTJ have the distinction of not making bad songs. It never feels like they give up, or offer anything that’s less than perfect and unique. They don’t get tied to progressing conceptually– it’s just one postage stamp piece of fine art at a time.
RTJ are so good at vivisecting their music that at every level it can be looked at it is consummate and interesting. This is definitely an album that rewards multiple listens, like their last two releases. It would be a cliche to cal RTJ3 ‘Thinking man’s’ hip hop– yes, it’s filled with verbose wordplay, proud political commentary, and El-P’s usual countercultural references, but, on a surface level, it’s danceable and compels you to move your body. El-P waves his producers baton and conjures hooks from Mikes caramel baritone. He chops up melodies to make melodies in melodies, fractals that are striking in their incongruity. It’s anti-social album, in both its anger and voyerism, like from two aliens who’ve watched the world from an excluded perch. It might be that 2016 does have a conscious. It might be here.