Sometimes I think I’m one of the only persons in the world who thinks that Killer Mike and El-P’s unlikeliest of friendships together hit its zenith in R.A.P. Music and Cancer 4 Cure. In the great year for hip-hop that was 2012, what, with Kendrick Lamar’s excellent good kid, m.A.A.d. city, one of Nas’ best albums seemingly out of nowhere, and strong efforts from ScHoolboy Q, Ab-Soul and Big K.R.I.T. (to name a few), those two records still managed to be some of the best around. Killer Mike, who got everyone paying attention to his commanding presence through features in late-period OutKast albums, hadn’t managed to make a great record despite great rapping: forgettable beats marred his early output, and when he finally acquired something great to rap over in No I.D.’s “Ready Set Go” (which paired a menacing rumble with a catchy vocal sample), he squandered it with the incredibly uneven PL3DGE. So R.A.P. Music was something of a spectacle to hear his deliberate flow on “Untitled” over El-P’s chunky rhythm or the stark-ness of “Reagan”, both words- and beats-wise. Even something as casual like the two-minute goodie, “Go!”, seemed to have come out of nowhere.
And El-P’s own solo album, Cancer 4 Cure, released just one week later, was also great: combining his typical vision of a laser-loaded, post-apocalyptic future with his catchiest hooks, a breath-less Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire verse, Danny Brown’s distinctive yelp and the occasional moment of beauty (the piano intro to “Tougher Colder Killer”; the funeral horns buried in “Stay Down”).
Run the Jewels’ debut album (2013) and sequel (2014) seemed to attract more attention than either of them, but for me, neither came close to touching either of those records. A big problem: Killer Mike had to share half the mic time with El-P, whom despite the chemistry and despite being inspired by the presence of a bonafide great rapper; his flow has sometimes been problematic, to say the least. Another problem: Killer Mike’s subject matter explored in his solo career had become more one-dimensional as part of Run the Jewels. But I won’t deny that both albums contained plenty of quotables and plenty of bangers, or that the brevity of either album was a welcome change from the usual. And yet: if Run the Jewels 2 was the best album of 2014, what a drought of a year that was. (Indeed it was.)
With all that out in the open, let me just say up-front that the last two songs on Run the Jewels 3 might be the best two songs in their entire trilogy so-far. In “Thursday in the Danger Room,” both El-P and Killer Mike do away with the hard personas that make up most of their output as Run the Jewels to discuss death. El-P does this in the middle of his verse: “Like how do you look in the eyes of a friend and not cry when you know that they’re dying? / How do you feel ’bout yourself when you know that sometimes you had wished they were gone? / Not because you didn’t love ’em but just because you felt too weak to be strong.” It’s a shocker, because El keeps his words simple and thus, his flow easy to follow, and what results is one of the heaviest-hitting verse of any of these albums so far. And keeping with the influence feedback loop between Killer Mike and Kendrick Lamar, El-P brings in saxophonist Kamasi Washington (who played on To Pimp a Butterfly) to provide some lovely counterpoint with the main hook in the outro.
And bothered by the fact that Killer Mike had stopped making stuff like “Reagan” when he started making music as part of Run the Jewels, hearing Killer Mike do this on “A Report to the Shareholders” almost had me off my chair: “Ooh, Mike said ‘uterus’, they acting like Mike said ‘You a bitch’ / To every writer who wrote it, misquote it / Mike says, ‘You a bitch.’” And El doesn’t fuck around for his verses either, opening the track with “And I’m scared that I talk too much about what I think’s going on / I got a way with this, they might drag me away for this / Put me in a cage for this, I might pay for this … Maybe that’s why me and Mike get along” to the heavily alliterative verse on second part, “Kill Your Masters,” where he leverages the “oo” sound well in back half of his verse (abusive, roofie, hula-hoop, loop, rulers do, fools, fooling who).
Another difference: at 51 minutes, this is noticeably longer than its predecessors. And yet: I didn’t notice or care. El-P being the producer he is, there’s plenty of good beats to sink your ears into. Details, in the order as they come: the percussion saved for the last minute of “Legend Has It”; the pinball drum beat in the back halves of the verses of “Call Ticketron”; the way El sits on the drums in “2100” until he starts his verse, letting them punctuate in all the right places; the strobe light beat of “Everybody Stay Calm”; the electric guitar line in “A Report to the Shareholders.” Elsewhere, the buried horns add a melodic flourish the verses of “Stay Gold” while the choruses is all digitized funk that’s been inverted: the high notes seemingly hitting things at random and a bubbling bass figure that blurts in and out.
Elsewhere, it’s always a pleasure to hear Danny Brown yelling “TUT” on an El-P beat (“Like a gram of blow, you inject / My word infect like insects having incest, I’m in check”) and El-P’s wife, who sang the hook on R.A.P. Music’s “Anywhere But Here,” shows up for a single word on “Legend Has It,” and, well, it’s hilarious.
Rapping-wise, both Killer Mike and El-P deliver as expected of them. Something like this leaves nothing to the imagination, but it’s delivered immaculately: “We the grimy and gritty, made it the Grammy committees / Got told that we spit it too vicious and would never see victory / And I refuse to play humble as though my dick itty bitty / I got banana dick, your bitch go apeshit if she hit it / Meanwhile, you’re too nervous, pervis, that’s why you never get service / And me, I caught the preacher’s wife working ‘fore Sunday service / I put my hand up her skirt and then we prayed for purpose / I baptized her in Jesus name, left her shaking and squirting / Ooh, I shocked the Sunday school and did that shit there on purpose / See, I’m a pervert with purpose that make you question your purpose.” Ignoring the over-use of the word “purpose”, one ought to marvel at the details: “grimy-gritty-Grammy-committee”; the consonance of “vicious-victory” or “Jesus-shaking-squirting-shocked-Sunday-school.” And that’s not even discussing the hypnotic rhythms of the beat for “Panther Like a Panther.”
Quibbles: “Thieves! (Screamed the Ghost)” is a plod, even if the backing vocals adds an eerie effect to the first two verses (with the one bolstering El-P’s voice coming in like a radio transmission). But they do away with them for the third and fourth verses, making it hard to get to Tunde Adebimpe’s outro (of TV on the Radio fame). And both the beat and the choruses of “Oh Mama” are an annoyance: the squelch of the bass in the verses obscures Killer Mike and El-P continuing each other’s trickier rhymes, and I wish El-P had outsourced the choruses to someone who might’ve carried them better. And Zach de la Rocha, who closes the album out, probably could’ve worded “Charley Mingus dumping through the ceiling” better (“Charley?”).
All told, I still don’t think it’s better than either of the aforementioned albums: truthfully, I was sick of the “Christmas Fucking Miracle” jokes before they even began, or the hyperbole that Run the Jewels saved 2016. (I’ll bite: saved the year from what? From death? From Trump?) But I also think it’s better than the first or second installments: slightly more ambitious and slightly more layered. For anyone concerned that they missed the just-published year-end lists, (1) I’m sure they knew what they were getting into, what, with year-end lists being published before year-end being the norm for the longest time and (2) maybe you guys take year-end lists too seriously, if you’re that bothered.