“Run the Jewels 3”: An ode to a political revolution

by Jacob Meister | 1/24/17 1:45am

“Kill your masters.”

The order comes on the final track of “Run the Jewels 3,” the much-anticipated third project from the prolific hip-hop duo, Run the Jewels. The album, released in late December 2016, is arguably the group’s most revolutionary and most powerful work to date.

What began in 2013 as a commercial collaboration between two well-established rap legends quickly revealed itself to be something much more dynamic and interesting than any hip-hop connoisseur could have predicted. Run the Jewels, or RTJ, combines the talents of Atlanta, Georgia rapper, Killer Mike, and Brooklyn, New York-born rapper and producer, El-P. Though the two 41-year-old rappers have been active in the hip-hop community since the 1990s, both performers have their own distinct, heavy-hitting styles that reflect their unique experiences in that community.

For Killer Mike, whose real name is Michael Render, that experience involved growing up poor and black in Atlanta. At a young age, he became infatuated with hip-hop music, but to support himself, Render often had to turn to selling drugs on the street. For a short period, he attended Morehouse College in Atlanta, where he eventually met Antwan Patton, also know as Big Boi of the extremely popular duo, OutKast. Killer Mike went on to feature on several OutKast tracks before embarking on a successful solo career, which included several strong albums.

Born in Brooklyn, New York, El-P, whose real name is Jaime Meline, is of mixed Irish, Cajun, Lithuanian and Jewish descent. He grew up during the “golden age” of hip-hop, the period in the 80s and 90s when New York was a breeding ground for developing high-quality, innovative rappers and producers. Meline followed in the footsteps of other great MCs and producers, forming the group Company Flow with fellow DJ, Mr. Len. Later joined by rapper Bigg Jus, Company Flow dominated underground rap for much of the later ’90s before dissolving in 2001 following a string of problems with their label. El-P’s solo career encountered varying degrees of commercial and critical success with three studio-produced albums and a few smaller side-projects.

When Killer Mike and El-P were introduced by a Cartoon Network executive in 2011, it appeared that both men were nearing the end of the careers. Hip-hop is widely considered to be a young man’s game; there are few successful artists who still create content in their late 30s and 40s. But Render and Meline became fast friends, and that friendship soon developed into creative collaboration, beginning with the release of the 2012 album “R.A.P. Music.”

In 2013, following a successful joint-tour for their latest albums, El-P and Killer Mike officially formed Run the Jewels. The group’s eponymous first album was released through Fool’s Gold Records in 2013 and received critical acclaim. After giving several strong performances at venues and festivals around the United States, the duo released its follow-up album, “Run the Jewels 2,” in 2014 with a variety of guest producers. “Meow the Jewels,” a comical, cat-sound-infused remix, was released later in the year following a satirical online crowd-funding campaign that managed to raise $60,000. The success of “Meow the Jewels” reflects the group’s 21st century approach to music production and distribution in the era of streaming and online mixtapes.

After “Meow the Jewels,” the duo took a short break to focus on other ventures. Killer Mike, specifically, gained recognition for his civic activism, including his criticism of police brutality, corrupt politicians and systematic racism. His passion for social justice translates itself across his discography, his business ventures and his political support. For example, Killer Mike opened a barbershop in Atlanta to serve as an entrepreneurial opportunity and healthy cultural environment for young African-American men in the area. Following the unjustified deaths of many black youth at the hands of police, he wrote a heartfelt op-ed in Billboard Magazine. Most notably, during 2015, Killer Mike publicly endorsed Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders. The two social justice advocates released a six-part interview series filmed at the famous soul food restaurant Busy Bee Cafe in Atlanta.

Killer Mike’s increasing political involvement and rejection of mainstream moderate authority shows itself proudly through the highly anticipated “Run the Jewels 3.”

“RTJ3” is, in short, a 14-track, 51-minute firestorm. Packed to the teeth with boisterous aggression, stinging disses and a guest list featuring Danny Brown, Boots and Zack de la Rocha of Rage Against the Machine, “Run the Jewels 3” captures Killer Mike and El-P operating at the top of their the game. Killer Mike embodies the intersection of civic activist and rapper, proving once and for all that the two titles need never be mutually exclusive. His bars are crisp and contemplative, appearing to bounce easily off his tongue, and complementing El-P’s blaring electronic bass beats perfectly. He addresses his past experience doing and selling drugs, but his most potent bars come when he addresses corrupt power structures and the need for aggressive resistance. On “Talk to Me”, Killer Mike raps “Militant Michael might go psycho / On any ally or rival / Born black, that’s dead on arrival / My job is to fight survival.” In a tense political environment, Killer Mike is unapologetic in his commitment to promoting the rights of oppressed minorities, no matter who he has to fight. Later, in the album’s closing track “A Report to the Shareholders / Kill Your Masters” Killer Mike recounts his experience in the 2016 presidential campaign, and his frustration at having to choose between “the lesser of the evil people.” His message is inflammatory, but a significant percentage of young Americans identify with it.

El-P’s flows follow a different pattern. His lines are longer and more complex, naturally twisting across cadences as he references “Back to the Future” and “The Berenstain Bears” before returning to his braggadocio tendency to promote his beats and sexual prowess. El-P’s lyrics are consistent in their science-fiction themed ambiance and aesthetic of his beats, which sometimes sample from old, robotic, Ticketron advertisements and “Twilight Zone” introductions. Set over futuristic, fast-paced snare beats and blaring electronic bass notes, El-P and Killer Mike’s back-and-forth rap banter often sounds like a high-intensity conversation between like-minded revolutionaries with a buddy cop dynamic. Their energy in today’s hip-hop landscape offers a welcome vacation from the emotional rapper-singers and the meaningless mumble-rappers; every young pop hip-hop artist falls somewhere on the spectrum between Drake and Migos. Above all, “Run the Jewels 3” is a return to swaggering old-school stylings with a thematic social message curated for the purpose of igniting a revolution: “Kill Your Masters.”