Run the Jewels 2 was the rare sequel that topped the original, as the skull-busting tag team of Atlanta street intellectual Killer Mike and Brooklyn indie-rap veteran El-P synchronized their punches with the aggro precision of a brilliantly choreographed superhero fight sequence. The third installment, which dropped digitally weeks ahead of schedule on Christmas Eve, thrums with similar urgency, but a lot’s changed since 2014. Mike spent the summer bro’ing down with Bernie Sanders, moonlighting as a CNN talking head, and his no-nonsense anti-racism is increasingly the language of black activism. Meanwhile, El-P’s cyberpunk-tinged premonitions of dystopia sound more like straight-up journalism every day.
Run the Jewels reorient themselves accordingly. Rather than slamming into action, Episode Three opens with the ruminative prelude “Down,” Mike glancing backward at the drug-pushing life he evaded and joining fellow Atlantan Joi for a melodic hook. El-P’s production, aided as before by Little Shalimar and Wilder Zoby, still centers on a bassy throb and squelch, but now his drums twitch in nervous anticipation as often as they land like pavement-pulverizing Hulk stomps. “2100,” written with Beyonce producer Boots, is laced with wiry guitar arpeggios, Kendrick Lamar collaborator Kamasi Washington blows a sax on “Thursday in the Danger Room” that’s by turns soulful and frantic, and the tracks make room for the distinct styles of several guest MCs – Danny Brown’s anxious yelp, Zack de la Rocha’s say-it-and-spray-it flow, Miami rap queen Trina’s effortless filth.
Lyrically, there no lack of muscular skill-flexing. On “Talk to Me,” Mike calls out an easily ID’d devil who “wore a bad toupee and a spray tan” while El-P boasts self-abasingly “I’m dirt, motherfucker/I can’t be crushed.” And El-P’s still got just as many absurdist boasts (“I do pushups nude on the edge of cliffs”) as Mike has pithy slogans (“We are the no-gooders, do-gooders”). But tracks like the simmering “Thieves! (Screamed the Ghost),” with eerie vocals from Boots and TV on the Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe and a clip of MLK intoning “A riot is the language of the unheard,” mark an evolution of the duo’s sound and sensibility. Run the Jewels can still detonate rhymes like a Molotov cocktail lobbed into a CVS, but now they’re strategizing for the long war ahead.