In praise of Run The Jewels, the world’s hardest family values rap duo
On their third album, Killer Mike and El-P show their true colors: not as hard vigilantes, but as wholesome hard vigilantes.
POP QUIZ: Can you identify which of these opening lines from a Run The Jewels album is not like the other?
A) “Oh dear, what the fuck do we have here?”
B) “I’M GONNA BANG THIS BITCH THE FUCK OUT!”
C) “I hope with the highest of hopes that I never have to go back to the trap and my days of dealing with dope.”
The correct answer was C, for the clear tonal difference, of course. (If you said A because El-P said it instead of Killer Mike, you’re technically correct, but you’re also very annoying.) Compared to their first two albums, the duo starts Run the Jewels 3 on a relatively quiet and introspective note. Killer Mike continues that first verse, pattering off what he wants to accomplish with the album: “So I, I only spit fire and dope/ so later you can go quote/ my lines to your people and folk.” It’s a thesis statement, one that brings to mind community and family, and one that marks a strong, if subtle, shift for Jaime and Mikey.
Run The Jewels (or RTJ, or those angry rappers your son/little brother/weird college roommate listens to really loudly) emerged in 2013 after El-P produced Killer Mike’s album, Mike did a feature on El’s album, they toured together, and then at some point looked deep into each other’s eyes and decided to become the most aggressive duo to ever be named after a line from an LL Cool J song. The combination of the pair’s relentless lyrics over El-P’s demonic-freight-train-off-the-rails production feels like the underground hip-hop version of that dumb 80’s Reese’s commercial where somehow two people accidentally combine chocolate and peanut butter. (This is off topic, but that combo was definitely created on purpose either by a damn genius chef or an idiot hungry teen, not two clumsy 80’s kids. I see right through you, old Reese’s commercial.)
RTJ’s music is so loud, cathartic, and just fun that when I put it on in my Volkswagen Jetta it makes me feel like I’m driving the Christopher Nolan Batmobile and I can smash into anything and everything without consequence. Mike and El rap about so many different kinds of violence and sexual acts that the one time I played their music (“Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck)”) with my parents in the car (my dad’s Honda Pilot turned Nolan Batmobile), their brains melted out of their ears and my siblings and I became orphans (they told me to turn it off). So while the changes in tone on RTJ3 may be subtle, they’re nearly visible from space when put in context of their previous work.
The first and most noticeable change is that Run the Jewels 3 turned what was a tag team effort into a family affair. The album features small audio clips from two RTJ family members — Killer Mike’s teenage son intros “Stay Gold” with a “Dad, Uncle El, stay gold,” while El-P’s girlfriend Emily Panic gets a great punchline on “Legend Has It.” She caps off a characteristically vulgar El-P verse with a well-placed, exasperated “Stop.” These clips may seem inconsequential, but just the presence of the clips themselves turns the focus away from Mike and El themselves and onto the community that surrounds them that these two little samples imply.
Also, how cool is it that Killer Mike Jr. calls El-P “Uncle El!”
After Mini Mike’s intro kicks off “Stay Gold”, the track goes on to a chorus that’s an ode to the dudes’ significant others. Mike Sr. raps about how he has a “good thing with a bad bitch and that’s rare, bitch.” El says he’s “got a bad girl,” a “brain-with-an-ass girl.” While a lot of people wouldn’t include that language in their Valentine’s cards, they somehow almost come off as sweet when looked at through the lens of RTJ’s raw irreverence. Almost.
The family theme continues throughout the album. On “Oh Mama,” the boys bemoan how their lifestyle upsets their mothers, which upsets them. It’s nice that they care about how their moms feel, even though they continue to “set this crooked city on fire to light the smokery.” On “Thursday in the Danger Room,” El and Mike meditate on the loss of close friends and the pain of the ones their friends left behind.
None of these topics are new to rap music at all. In the past year, a lot of the big album releases touched on the same themes. Chance’s Coloring Book is big on family values and loss of innocence, and Kanye explored fatherhood on The Life of Pablo. But they’re new to Run The Jewels. The collaboration has grown from a fun project between friends who try and one up each other lyrically into something that reflects a deeper bond, friendship and family.
But maybe still don’t let your kids listen to it.