Run The Jewels became the first major artist to drop an album in 2017 by technically dropping it in 2016, as a surprise Christmas release (although I don’t think anyone’s going to retroactively edit their year end lists, so for all intents and purposes this is a 2017 release). So why is the duo, composed of Atlanta’s Killer Mike and New York’s El-P, a big deal? Well they’ve put out two consistent, aggressive, intelligent rap albums (the aptly titled RTJ1 and 2), the latter of which was Pitchfork’s top album of 2014 (which was by far the weakest year of the decade – I mean, the consensus best album was… The War on Drugs?). Their whole shtick is that they give no fucks, their brags are self-aware and funny, their flows are hard hitting and aggressive and relentless, their production is pulverizing, etc etc. And they’re also both over 40, so that’s pretty cool. Some would probably even call them the second best hip hop act out there (after Kendrick of course). So they’re a big deal, the album is a big deal.
RTJ3 is, in a word, unsurprising. It sounds exactly like RTJ have always sounded. It sounds like RTJ1 and like RTJ2, so the name is once again apt. El-P’s production is great as usual (if not a bit homogenous), the flows are fast and never ending, the brags are aggressive. Not 20 seconds goes by without a verse, the tracks rattle off one after another without a moment of pause. There are exactly two featured rappers (a below average verse from the incredibly above average Danny Brown and another uncredited one from Zach De La Rocha at the very very end), otherwise it’s just an El- and Mike-athon. But despite being exactly what you’d expect and likely what everyone wanted, I’m feeling pretty ‘meh’ about this record.
Oh but HR it’s Run the fucking Jewels! You can’t call them ‘meh’! They’re the best! They’re so aggressive! They’re so sick of your bullshit! I get it. But they were that in 2014, too. I guess I wanted them to change things up. I thought that maybe this would be the album that Run the Jewels would get political, seeing as how Killer Mike was a Bernie surrogate, but aside from socially conscious one liners and a fleeting reference to Trump (though honestly I’d be surprised if a single rap album came out in 2017 that didn’t reference Trump), this album isn’t any more political than RTJ1 or 2. I thought maybe it would be the album where they try to weave in some kind of coherent story line, or talk about their newfound fame in a unique and interesting way, or get really personal (which they actually do on the final two tracks), but no – for the most part, RTJ are still just talking about how big their dicks are.
But HR! Doesn’t a mediocre RTJ track still kick the shit out of every wannabe Drake’s best song? Yeah, I guess so. So then don’t 14 RTJ tracks kick the shit out of every wannabe Drake album? Not necessarily. 51 minutes of El and Mike aggressively and intelligently bragging about how good they are at rapping just feels less compelling and less interesting than inconsistent but unique records by ‘lesser’ rappers like Swet Shop Boys or Mac Miller, no matter how professional and consistent those 51 minutes may be. And at that point I’d rather just listen to RTJ2.
Another thing that strikes me is that there isn’t a notable banger or obvious single. I mean, they’re sort of all bangers, and I really wouldn’t be surprised if any one track was supposed to be the single, but nothing grabs me the way ‘Jeopardy‘ or ‘Blockbuster Night’ did off RTJ2. There are certainly impressive moments (I like Mike’s super quick tempo at the end of ‘Call Ticketron‘, which I find myself enjoying more and more despite a pretty obnoxious hook), but even picking which songs are my favorites is difficult because they all feel so similar. The song structures are frequently identical [Mike/El verse -> hook -> El/Mike verse -> hook] and lyrically they don’t really stick to one consistent theme (save for the standout ‘Thursday in the Danger Room‘ right at the end, a very personal meditation on the death of friends and family), and so I find myself choosing which tracks I like better based solely on how much I like the hook (none of which I love).
I’m sure this album will garner critical acclaim, including Pitchfork’s best new music honors (my guess is 8.6) alongside an 8 from Needle Drop, and not undeservedly so; if you’ve never heard Run the Jewels before, you’ll very likely be extremely impressed. But I don’t think I’m greedy for wanting something new and different from what we’ve come to expect with this project, seeing as how there are no shortage of hip hop releases from talented artists experimenting with new ideas. Essentially, I’d rather have seen RTJ try something new and come up short of their previous work than just write the same ten songs for the third time.