Run the Jewels’ Gloriously Obscene Rebellion

The combative rap duo’s jumbo-sized third album sees the world catching up with their say-anything, burn-it-all-and-start-again style.

Timothy Saccenti

“Welcome to fuckyoupalooze,” El-P offers on Run the Jewels 3, and it might as well be the album’s alternate title. Since the initial 2013 team-up of the rappers Killer Mike and El-P, Run the Jewels have built a rep as fierce protest musicians, but their work is best understood as an omnidirectional middle finger. Over the course of their latest release, they threaten nuns, bunny rabbits, “moms from jazzercise,” and general politeness: “I don’t know how to not spit like a lout,” El-P says, adding, “I’ll spill a pound of my kids on your couch.”

It would seem like a good moment for loutish spitting, given the tenor of online discourse and given the locker-room-talker headed to the Oval Office. Not long ago, Run the Jewels came across as total outsiders, with the smart sorrowful conscience of Atlanta’s Killer Mike and the sci-fi agitation of Brooklyn’s El-P combining for a vibe out of step with the rap mainstream and much of American popular culture. But lately their finely detailed, burn-it-down bombast seems strangely on-trend: In style if not in substance, they indulge the rush of giddy, combative pessimism on the rise for both sides of the ideological spectrum.

To be clear, they stand firmly on the left side of that spectrum. El-P stopped wearing red hats because of Donald Trump; Killer Mike worked as a Bernie Sanders surrogate. But Mike also opposed Hillary Clinton throughout the general election, saying she was “the same” as her opponent and alternately issuing “stay the fuck home” and “vote locally” messages to black people in the campaign’s final days. He’s possibly the leading cultural champion of the anti-status-quo mindset that took such a hold on portions of the traditional Democratic base that it may have swung the election, and he’s not softening now. “Choose the lesser of the evil people, and the devil still gon’ win,” he raps. “It could all be over tomorrow, kill our masters and start again.”

The fantasy of erasing the powerful and starting society again, of justice achieved through total rupture, has always been essential to the thrill of Run the Jewels’ music. It’s in the mechanized warfare of El-P’s production, where gunmetal-grey textures click and clack over propulsion recalling The Prodigy’s angry breakbeats. It’s in the us-vs.-everyone verbal teamwork creating rhyme patterns and line-lengths that are complementary, often-changing, and out of step with what you’re hearing elsewhere. And it’s in the free-questing lyrics that swirl raunch and introspection and agitprop.

Run the Jewels 3 is the longest of their releases—14 songs, 51 minutes—and it must be said their shtick at this scale does become a bit repetitive. Still, the highlights are enormous. “Down” makes a poignant start, putting the entire Run the Jewels project into perspective by establishing how a desperate past can color someone’s successful present. Over downbeat washes of sound, Mike talks about his fear of having to return to drug dealing and summarizes the Bill of Rights as it most urgently pertains to those like him: “One time for the freedom of speeches / Two time for the right to hold heaters / Just skip to the fifth, with the cops in the house, close your mouth and pray to your Jesus.”

From there, the duo vaults through a series of brag jams that double as furniture-kicking sessions, the musical geography defined less by verses and choruses than by clusters of epic moments. One comes when a deadpan female voice interrupts El-P’s claim about what’s between his legs: “I got a unicorn horn for a—‘stop.’” Another comes as the beat switches between the songs “Legend Has It” and “Call Ticketron,” the latter a high-energy rave spiked with snippets of old commercials for Madison Square Garden seats. While the swagger often betrays a political sensibility—Mike: “Domain eminent, we the preeminent”—eventually they shift back into more serious, solemn modes.

It’s especially solemn, and memorable, when the two give their own individual spins on grief for “Thursday in the Danger Room.” As is typical, El-P focuses more on self and Mike more on community, but both deliver potent testimony. Earlier, the spacey “2100” contemplates pending civilizational catastrophes, with the title hinting either at the date of total disaster or of long-overdue repair—though in Run the Jewels’ worldview, of course, these can be the same thing. The talk of inevitable holocaust and war hits hard after, say, recent famous tweets about nukes, but the song was written before the election and the sentiment has been the same all along for the band. “I’ve felt this dread pretty much my entire life,” El-P told Vulture. “I think we live in a bit of a bubble here. And that bubble’s popping. Everybody’s like, ‘Holy shit, things might not be fine if we turn the TV off.’”

Throughout, the rappers display South Park-ian disregard for decorum, most especially on the religious defilement anthem “Panther Like a Panther.” This obscenity isn’t simple hijinks; to hear them tell it, it’s a side effect of political bravery.  “I’m a pervert with purpose that make you question your purpose,” Killer Mike raps. El-P’s take: “You talk clean and bomb hospitals / So I speak with the foulest mouth possible.” Is this stuff actually going to shock people out of complacency? Maybe a few. But Run the Jewels raps first for its super-devoted fanbase, and the people who shell out for remix albums made entirely of cat meows are presumably already converted. The spectacle of over-the-top, destroy-it-all rhetoric works best to cinch performer and listener, a dynamic that’s well-familiar these days—even outside of music.