Album Review : Run the Jewels 3 (2016)
Run the Jewels are a fairly new band. They were formed in 2013, not long after Killer Mike and El-P were introduced to one another by a Cartoon Network executive, managed to release three albums in a little over three years and conquer the heart of countless millennials (such as myself) with their old school songwriting, the contemporary edge of their beats and Killer Mike's activism and integrity. They're great dudes, making great hip-hop, which is a seducing, karma-free proposition in the age of social media driven hyperscrutiny. I had NEVER listened to Run the Jewels before last week, so I decided to put my money where my mouth was and put my second foot into their bandwagon. Run the Jewels 3 is a lot simpler than I would've thought. There's a lot to like about it, but it's not what I expected to be at all.
Killer Mike and El-P are old school lyricists. They have more in common with acts like EPMD and Method Man & Redman than their contemporaries. Sure, they're considerably more engaged, but their artistic process and their songwriting philosophy are similar. Ideas are not invariably on the forefront like, let's say, in Immortal Technique's music. Overall cohesiveness and musical purity are their prioritize. Take the opener Down for example, which is a great throwback song. It's a rather conventional, yet eloquently put, track about triumphing from adversity and becoming successful through hip-hop. There aren't any direct statement on it and it's fine. The star of this banger is El-P's silky smooth, subtle and layered beat, which effortlessly carries the song. Joi Gilliam's performance adds a quite enjoyable texture to the song as well. It's definitely one you want to hear with headphones on. There are subtle details and layer shifts to the beat that would be easy to miss otherwise.
Other favorites of mine on Run the Jewels 3 are: Talk to Me, Legend Has It, Stay Gold, Panther like a Panther and A Report to Shareholders/Kill your Masters. These songs feature both their most intricate and original beats and some of their most militant lyrics. I particularly enjoyed the message of Talk to Me, which shows Killer Mike understands the communication plague that swept through America in 2015-16 and shares an undoubtedly clear point of view on the matter: Born Black, that's dead on arrival/My job is to fight for survival/In spite of these #AllLivesMatter-ass white folk. If Talk to Me stands out through its militant lyrics and Down through its sick beat, Legend Has It probably features their boldest song structure. Killer Mike and El-P exchange 10 short, fast verses on a glitchy beat, which interestingly features a brass section. I thought this was a nice touch that highlighted both their old school and contemporary sensibilities. Legend Has It is technically and conceptually the most interesting song on Run the Jewels 3.
Since it's my first experience with Run the Jewels, I don't have any frame of reference to speak from but I did feel these was slightly too much material on the album. Killer Mike and El-P's songwriting is inherently competent, but there's a sense of unevenness on the album. Passed Call Ticketron (which I have a love/hate relationship with), Run the Jewels 3 becomes somewhat of a hit-and-miss album. It's not that any songs are openly bad, but some suffer from the powerful sense of identity of others. Thieves! Everybody Stay Calm and Oh Mama for example are more straightforward, lyrics-driven old school hip-hop, which unfortunately blend in the background. These are songs with a powerful message (Thieves! in particular) but they would've benefited more time in the studio in order to craft a better sense of identity.
I've enjoyed Run the Jewels 3 overall. I thought it was a paragon of passion and integrity in today's self-absorbed hip-hop scene. It delivered consistently strong, yet surprisingly diverse original content. Musically, I thought it felt rushed a little bit. Killer Mike and El-P announced the album in 2014, so maybe it suffered from a rush to the finish line like many long-anticipated projects do. Some of the beats on Run the Jewels 3 are intricate and terrific, but others are too simplistic and straightforward to stand out. It usually is a symptom of overthinking certain pieces. Run the Jewels are a go-to band in the contemporary hip-hop landscape for music lovers longing for the good ol' days of Wu-Tang Clan, Gang Starr and KRS-One. Killer Mike and El-P offer a savant mix of social activism, passionate beatmaking and musical integrity on Run the Jewels 3. They've SLIGHTLY overdone it, but the album is very much worth a spin nonetheless. Or two. Or Ten. There's a lot of bangers on there.