Vol 11, Issue 9
Run The Jewels 3 electrocutes your brain with an imagining of the America to come
This is a fertile time for visions of the future, particularly for our American cousins. Gerontocrats, waging a war against women’s reproductive rights, are making feminist speculative fiction unhappily instructive. The murder of human hopers-after-refuge in seas, camps and deserts galvanises those who are pessimists by intellect, optimists by will, and visionary creators by empathetic compulsion. And while resurgent race-patriotism plunges industrialised nations into sectarian, proto-fascist ructions, two artists are talking about what’s coming and what to do.
‘I look at this album like a movie, almost like an Escape from New York, with a black kid and a white kid trying to escape a modern-day, post-apocalyptic New York,’ says Killer Mike. That album is Run The Jewels 3, the latest collaboration between Atlanta-born rapper Michael Render (Killer Mike, the former escapee) and rapper/producer Jaime Meline (El-P, the latter). Together, they are hip-hop supergroup Run the Jewels, or RTJ. A former dealer, social critic and anti-police violence activist, Mike marries braggadocio, rumbling aggression, and narrow-eyed cynicism about the vices and hypocrisy of the powerful. El is less an escapee from John Carpenter’s 1980s Manhattan Prison, and more like an illegal outpatient of Arkham Asylum. He is a hyperactive futurist paranoiac; a perennial Brooklynite child with authority issues, and puns spurt with film references and conspiracy theories from his overcaffeinated mouth. If Mike provides the visceral Southern meatiness, El-P brings the electrifying word-games and linguistic gymnastics. The two dovetail thematically, musically, and personally (describing each other as brothers), and bridge experiential divides to make something perfectly coherent: ‘Not from the same part of town, but we hear the same sound coming/And it sounds like war.’
With RTJ 3, El and Mike have weaponised hip hop to create a flashy, futuristic, revolutionary
incitement. Hip-hop distrusts the white-supremacist state, documents racial violence, emphasises material markers of social status, condemns fakeness, and interrogates tensions between individual success and social emancipation. For RTJ – already acutely disgusted by clerical, corporate, or state bullshit, and responding to a TV-celebrity KKK-endorsee who sucks down chocolate cake while bombing people of colour – the genre is perfectly calibrated.
Post-election tumult renders the album’s vision kaleidoscopic, traversing the DeLorean, corruption, racialised poverty, Children of Men, life under floodlights, and spiritual warfare. When harnessed, this vision’s rage burns into that orange forehead. On ‘Talk to Me’, Mike leers, ‘Went to war with the devil and Shaitan/He wore a bad toupée and a spray tan’. Elsewhere, he raises a preemptive middle finger to what’s coming: ‘Fucking fascist, who the fuck are you to give fifty lashes?’ RTJ 3 is never quiet, but can be chilling – on ‘Don’t Get Captured’, ominous dragging synths score gentrification, supernatural haunting, and smartphone footage of racist police murders. Hopelessness and rage bubble up in the collective consciousness. At the album’s core is ‘2100’, with El-P and Mike reaching from the dread of genocide, towards plans for glorious revolution, calls for salvation and exhortations to just peace: ‘Make love, smoke kush, try to laugh hard, and live long/That's the antidote/You defeat the devil when you hold onto hope’.
And with their shift from horror-movie influences towards sci-fi grit, RTJ could have blasted this album back through a wormhole, from 2100, in a satellite time capsule. El-P’s gleaming production glares unignorably from tracks like ‘Call Ticketron’, turning a Max Headroom-like vocal hook from an automated call centre into this shattered future’s broken digital narrator. Bass kicks punch under exhausted arcade-esque synths, while El equivocates, ‘The hovercraft’s cool, but the air’s so putrid.’ Another highlight, with drum-machine handclaps and bass buzzing static like a bunker radio seeking signs of life, is ‘Hey Kids (Bumaye)’. Danny Brown, fresh from his own frantic Atrocity Exhibition, sends voltage crackling through the track with his agonised, off-kilter yelping flow. ‘Stay Gold’ goes off the deep end with a stuttering vocal hook underpinning sonar pings and relentless hi-hats as the duo brag shamelessly.
Mike and El have solidified RTJ’s aesthetic, and their verse-trading synergy makes Run The Jewels 3 greater than the sum of its parts. Fury is channelled into their keen sense for the absurd, sardonic cynicism, deft intertextuality, schoolboy humour, compulsive theatricality, and joyously cartoonish hyperbole. The project stands on these qualities, and on a hearteningly generous conviction about people’s capacity to thrive free from the influence of lurking power-mongers. Timely.
Cameron Doig is a first-year JD student
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