When Run the Jewels released their first album in 2013, it was something of a surprise sleeper hit. It wasn’t as though hip-hop fans had low expectations for a collaborative album between Killer Mike and El-P, two veterans rappers who had worked together in the past. However, collaborative albums, even between rappers as accomplished as Mike and El, have a tendency to underwhelm. Sometimes the strength of two powerful voices can be too much to take.
That wasn’t the case with Run the Jewels, who demonstrated their skill for trading verses and delivering boasts so well, they made it look easy. They also wisely kept the runtime slim, 10 tracks in 32 minutes. This meant listeners were left wanting more from Run the Jewels.
2014’s follow-up, Run the Jewels 2 was the bigger and badder (in the best way possible) sequel. It amplified everything, from production to guest star count to create one of the most impactful hip-hop albums in recent memory. It was the type of album that was bound to stop you dead in your tracks, even after several listens.
Run the Jewels are back with their third full-length album, aptly titled Run the Jewels 3. Anyone who’s heard the previous two installments knows exactly what to expect with this one, but since Killer Mike and El-P set such a strong pedigree, anything that deviated from that formula would be sure to be a disappointment. After all, why mess with perfection?
Critics have responded well to the album. Reviewers noted the darker undertones of the album, which are likely due in part to the tense political climate of the last couple years. Reviewing the album for The Skinny, Peter Simpson writes that the album “truly excels in its darkest moments” highlighting themes of police brutality, corrupt politicians and society facing collapse. Despite its critical success, RTJ3 was released too late to receive any hip-hop nominations at the Grammys this year.
Killer Mike and El-P aren’t just veteran rappers, they’re also a good deal older than many of the new rappers on the scene. So it makes sense that they take a politicized approach, reminiscent of old school hip-hop such as Public Enemy. That group’s founder, Chuck D, even cites Run the Jewels as an influence for their latest album, 2015’s Man Plans God Laughs. Speaking out against aggression and suppression has long been a hallmark of hip-hop, and Run the Jewels are some of the best cultural ambassadors working today.
What really helps the group out is how good they are at working together. Run the Jewels have a magnetic energy that can’t be explained, only appreciated. The chemistry between Killer Mike and El-P is one of a kind. After three albums together, Run the Jewels might not be able to surprise listeners with quality; after all, we’ve come to expect that. They can, however, surprise listeners by staying so consistently good. Most rap duos are lucky to pull off one decent collaborative record; Run the Jewels have miraculously pulled off three great ones.