February 8, 2018

My Gut Reaction: Run The Jewels - Run The Jewels 3 (December 24, 2016)

Run The Jewels, the side project-turned-main gig for rapper-slash-producer El-P and rapper-slash-Grammy winner Killer Mike, has been a narrative thread that I’ve enjoyed seeing grow for the past few years. The duo, who share a like-minded passion for politicized boasts-n-bullshit, are enjoying their respective second winds within our chosen genre. As readers of the blog all know, El-P was once a part of an underground rap crew known as Company Flow and once ran his own record label, Definitive Jux, whose progressive, eclectic roster is still sorely missed today. And Killer Michael, of course, collected that Grammy as a close affiliate of Atlanta-based duo OutKast, whom he worked closely with and still continues to do so today, at least with the member who still actively wants to rap, Big Boi. El-Producto and Killer Mike’s Run The Jewels has released two critically-acclaimed albums and a one-off remix project, Meow The Jewels, that was inspired by a joke these two made on their website: said joke took on a life of its own, resulting in a large charitable donation on the duo’s part as the fans made the gag a reality.

The reason Run The Jewels is as successful as they are, with their popularity growing seemingly every day (they now frequently score guest appearances on outside projects, such as recent ones by DJ Shadow and Statik Selektah, and scored a Grammy nomination of their own alongside producer Danger Mouse for their contribution to the Baby Driver soundtrack), is because they’ve always treated the fans with respect and reverence. More so than any other rap act at the moment, Jamie and Mike know that they are only capable of doing what they love because they have people in their corner who are willing to throw their support behind them. The duo have seen tour dates sell out rapidly, and their work has genuinely inspired people to follow their own truth; also, people seem to love drawing their own takes on their logo, a variation of which is seen on the cover art above. In return, Run The Jewels has continued to offer up their music to the masses for free on their website while offering options for purchase, a business practice that places a lot of trust in the hands of the consumer. This extended to their third full-length project, the conveniently-named Run The Jewels 3, which El-P went ahead and dropped three weeks early as a holiday gift for their day ones.

Run The Jewels 3 sees the duo continuing in their quest to dominate hip hop, molding it in their own image. The entire album, as usual, is produced by El-P, but this time around he is assisted on every track by Little Shalimar and Wilder Zoby. In keeping with their trend, Mike and Jamie invited a varied assortment of guests to partake in the fun, but unlike past projects, there are a couple of repeat offenders who pop up on Run The Jewels 3. I’ve been sitting on this project for over a year at this point without ever having opened up the zip file, so enough with this distraction, let’s listen to some goddamn music.

For a Run The Jewels album, “Down” is awfully calm for an introductory track. The music is what I would have expected if portions of an Enya composition were looped into a hip hop beat, and both Mike and Jamie come across as reserved and exhausted during their verses because of it. I’m not saying the instrumental is bad in any way: there’s just very little energy here. This is the cooldown for your Soul Cycle class. Guest crooner Joi sounds just fine during her (limited) contributions to the chorus, and our hosts don’t suck: they just seem like they have nothing left to prove. Which is to say, this was a weird way to kick off Run The Jewels 3. Huh.

Considering the number of times El-Producto and Killer Mike mention the title of the project, I wonder why “Talk To Me” wasn’t the first track on Run The Jewels 3. There’s much more intensity present on here, too: El-P’s verse starts off slow and as meandering as an El-P performance can sound, but grows angrier and more aggressive as each bar passes, his boasts-n-bullshit gaining in mythology as the two minutes and thirty seconds it takes for “Talk To Me” to play fly by. The instrumental is far closer to what listeners imagine Run The Jewels spitting over, at least if compared to “Down” and not the first two albums. A nice reintroduction, anyway.

If Run The Jewels has a signature sound, “Legend Has It” lives in its guest room, eating all of its food and smoking blunts in the bathtub. Mike and Jamie trade off every few bars or so, building on the strength of the last verse until unleashing some semblance of catharsis in the form of scratching. El-Producto’s lyrics veer more toward the smart-ass persona he’s cultivated since his Company Flow days, while Michael’s line delivery is more straightforward, but the combination is as potent as ever. “Legend Has It” earns its place on the eventual Run The Jewels greatest hits album that absolutely nobody will purchase. Because the duo keeps giving their shit away for free, you see.

This Gut Reaction marks my first overall listen to Run The Jewels 3, but “Call Ticketron” is a song I’m familiar with, as Sirius XM’s XMU station played the shit out of it, and I have to say, it bored the shit out of me while I was driving around, and within the context of the album proper, it doesn’t work much better for me. I will admit to thinking the video was alright, though. I hate everything about the hook, but it’s difficult for me to articulate why I don’t like “Call Ticketron” as a whole: I think the marriage of the rapid-fire instrumental and the Killer Mike and El-P performance was doomed from the start, and no amount of counseling or callbacks to Rob Base and the late DJ E-Z Rock’s “It Takes Two” will change my mind. As they say, it is what it is.

Detroit’s Danny Brown is an acquired taste, yes, and for the most part I like the dude’s unorthodox style and can tolerate his high-pitched, excitable-puppy delivery. But I absolutely loathed him on “Hey Kids (Bumaye)”, so much so that I would catch a flight to Motown just to burn his goddamn house down. He sounds fucking awful, bringing the rest of the track, which wasn’t very memorable in the first place, down to Hell with him. I’m sure there are readers who dug his contribution, and more power to you, but I’d still suggest you talk to a therapist so that you can get to the bottom of who hurt you in your past, as that’s the only way you could ever consider Daniel’s verse to “good”. Fuck this song.

“Stay Gold” follows the plot of the S.E. Hinton novel The Outsiders to the letter, as Mike and Jamie rap about the women that hold them down. Who could forget when Ponyboy waxed eloquently about his down-ass chick over a Southern bounce beat that sounded both modern and like a retro throwback all at once? I would have expected Killer Mike, who’s actually from Atlanta, to have outclassed Brooklyn’s El-P on here, but Jamie comes to play, spitting double-time boasts-n-bullshit as though this were his job or something. Not a bad song by any means, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to hunt it down.

Not a whole lot to this one. Mike and Jamie ride the score of a science-fiction hacker flick that doesn’t yet exist for “Don’t Get Captured”, whose hook is literally our two hosts trading off on reading the title. The lyrics exist, but aren’t very memorable: the only aspect of this track I can recall is the beat, which I would love to have the instrumental for. Hell, there are a lot of Run The Jewels songs that I’d like to have the beats of: hey El-P, could you hook us up?

Switches back to the slower-paced regiment, but “Thieves! (Screamed The Ghost)” is far more sinister than “Down”. Our hosts bring their flows back to a conversational speed as the music creeps past, causing the hairs on the back of your neck to stand at attention. I was afraid that guest star Tunde Adebimpe, of TV On The Radio, would be wasted with a “chorus” that consists solely of him saying, “Thieves!”, but he throws some vocals in toward the end. Not a bad choice of collaborator, and not just because “Thieves! (Screamed The Ghost)” already reads like a TV On The Radio album title.

9. 2100 (FEAT. BOOTS)
Also on the calmer side of things, but deliberately so: “2100” was released the day after the 2016 presidential election, when we all realized that the United States of America as we knew it was fucking doomed. (Now’s as good a time as any to say: Fuck Donald Trump.) Killer Mike’s opening bars, “How long before the hate that we hold lead us to another Holocaust?”, turned out to be prophetic, as we now have to deal with literal Nazis who no longer feel the need to shield their identities, empowered by the racist who sits in the White House that somehow tricked low-income Bible Belt-ers into thinking he was working for them when all he gives a fuck about is himself. Because of the context, I can’t love this song: I wonder if it would have even been released had Hillary won. But it isn’t a bad song, and Boots lends some vocals that help tie everything together.

Boots sticks around to help produce the “Miracle Mix” of “Panther Like A Panther”, a boasts-n-bullshit session that our hosts apparently didn’t like the original version of, although El-P did later unleash it on unsuspecting fans anyway. I haven’t heard the O.G., but the album’s take sounds at times like Mike and Jamie are rapping over a song by The Postal Service, but with harder drums: that’s intended as a compliment. Guest star Trina, who has been trying to fight her way back into the rap game for a minute now, only spits an inane chorus, which is a waste of her talents, especially after Run The Jewels resurrected Gangsta Boo for Run The Jewels 2. (Trina isn’t on the original version, but the chorus remains the same, so she really was only brought in as a hook for hire, which is depressing to me.) The shit-talking is catchy, though.

Sure, the song’s title requests that “Everybody Stay Calm”, but the instrumental seems to have a mind of its own, keeping the listener on high alert while Mike and Jamie talk their shit again. The “hook” could have been thought out a bit more, but overall I liked this one, as our hosts are finally in their element, toying with the expectations of the audience.

I didn’t care for this song. Bored emoji.

Jamie and Mike tell personal stories of loss over musical accompaniment that is assisted by jazz musician Kamasi Washington. Apparently the experience writing and recording the song was so intense that El-P almost cut it from the final tracklisting: he obviously didn’t, since we can all hear how he feels about the death of a late friend (purportedly rapper Camu Tao, who passed away from lung cancer ten years ago). Definitely not something to bump in your car, but for sitting at home and reminiscing, it does the job.

Run TheJewels 3 ends with two, two, two songs in one. “A Report To The Shareholders” finds our hosts each spitting their typical boasts, with El-P helpfully explaining that he had no idea the duo would take off the way it did: he thought it would be a lark of a side project that he could maybe monetize, but that was it. “Kill Your Masters” is the official album closer, and is considered online to be a spiritual sequel to “Close Your Eyes (And Count To Fuck)” (from Run The Jewels 2), mostly because “Kill Your Masters” also features Zack De La Rocha in a surprise, uncredited cameo (SPOILER ALERT!). The finale gives the listener the angry-at-the-system revolutionaries they may prefer, as Mike and Jamie give us a rundown on how fucked our world is, while their invited guest caps the song with a final verse that is essentially the same as his performance on “Close Your Eyes (And Count To Fuck)”, so much so that I’m convinced both verses were lifted from the same unreleased Zack De La Rocha solo song that El-P still has in his vault. (Someone send me some footage of him recording the verse specifically for this project, or else I’ll push this rumor forward.) If you liked the earlier version of “Kill Your Masters”, you’ll probably enjoy this remake, but to me it was more of the same. It doesn’t help that I like, but didn’t love nor ever really think about now, Rage Against The Machine. Anyway.

THE LAST WORD: Run The Jewels 3 comes dangerously close to treading water, as more than a handful of these tracks find El-P and Killer Mike going back to the well, especially the final song, “Kill Your Masters”, which, the more I think about a song that just ended, the more it retroactively makes me not care so much for its predecessor on Run The Jewels 2. Lyrically, both of our hosts are as sharp as ever, their respective line deliveries both sarcastic and self-aware. The music underneath runs the gamut from really fucking entertaining to sleep-inducing and right back to riot-inciting: Run The Jewels 3 is a roller coaster as a rap album. As such, it didn’t entirely work for me. There are a few songs on here that I found myself loving, but if it were an issue with whether or not you should spend money on the project, I’d be torn. Thankfully, Run The Jewels gave this away for free, so unless you truly wish to support their endeavors (and I encourage you to do so based on their body of work), ignore all of the Amazon links embedded within and click here to download it for free. I want these guys to win, as their story fascinates me, as I mentioned above: hopefully the eventual Run The Jewels 4 rectifies these mistakes and maybe, just maybe, avoids Danny Brown’s calls.


Catch up on the other Run The Jewels projects that aren’t cat-related by clicking here.


  1. I’ve yet to digest a single piece of work from either artist. Where should I start?

    1. For peak El-P production I'd go with Cannibal Ox's The Cold Vein, which he produced in its entirety. I'll let others share their thoughts with you on the rest.

    2. you can jump into his work at any point really since el-p's style has evolved tremendously throughout the years

      if you want a more minimalist sound try funcrusher plus and fantastic damage

      if you want a more traditional boom-bap sound try hell's winter by cage (he didn't produce it all but a good amount of it with camu tao)

      if you want the cold vein spacey, atmospheric, lush type of production try i'll sleep when you're dead which in my opinion is el's crowning achievement

  2. Yeah, the Cold Vein is probably the best place to start, though I think El-P's Fantastic Damage is his best work overall. Mike's albums are all super uneven except R.A.P. Music, which I like a lot (and El-P produced it).

  3. Alec J WeatherwoodFebruary 09, 2018

    Seconded. After that, try Funcrusher Plus by El-P's old crew Company Flow. For some light reading while you are listening I recommend reading this review (shameless plug):

    For Killer Mike check out R.A.P. Music, also fully produced by young Jamie. For pre-El-P Killer Mike check out his I Pledge Allegiance To The Grind series.

    Max: it is fucking great to have you back.

  4. I actually bump Thursday night in the danger room in the car regularly. Stand out song for me on the album really love it.

  5. RTJ are amazing live if you ever get the chance to see them. As for this.. well, let's just say RTJ2 is the only one I would actively buy if these legendary artists behaved any normal way